'Sunset laws' spread, help states cut agency clutter

Texas said "Bye y'all" to its Pink Boll Worm Commission and its Stonewall Jackson Memorial Commission. Colorado banished its Board of Professional Shorthand Reporters. And Florida bade farewell to its Board of Registration of Watchmakers.

These are among the early casualties of fast-spreading "sunset laws," under which dozens of state agencies from Maine to Hawaii face a dark future.

The intent of sunset laws is to make the operations of various executive agencies more accountable than they might be in the absence of legislative examination.

Although the sunset measures vary considerably in scope and timetable, most provide for automatic termination of any agencies not specifically extended by law within a prescribed period following the legislative review. In some states passage of an abolition measure is required to get rid of a department or operation that lawmakers deem unneeded.

In some instances, instead of abolishing agencies, two or more separate operations are merged to provide increased efficiency by eliminating overlapping authority.

Since 1976, when the first sunset laws went on the books, a major goal has been to encourage deregulation of various activities which, in the opinion of critics, are unnecessary and in some instances "work against the best interest of consumers."

Thirty-four states since 1975 have enacted laws providing for periodic evaluation of at least some departments to determine if they are still needed.

So far this year, no additional states have adopted sunset laws. But a Common Cause- sparked sunset-law drive came close in at least one and measures are pending in several others, including Massachusetts.

Current statutes, including those in Illinois, Mississippi, Nevada, West Virginia, and Wyoming, cover more than 2,400 separate agencies. And about four dozen of these have failed to justify their existence to state lawmakers.

The vast majority of the departments, commissions, and boards scheduled for scrutiny have not yet been looked at, and the list of those wiped out seems bound to lengthen in the years ahead.

Boosters of sunset laws such as Dorothy Cecelski, associate director of field operations for Common Cause, say that such measures have worked best where their requirements reasoanbly could be met.

Vince Brown, of the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures, echoes these sentiments. He notes that a 1976 Alabama statute, which embraced more than 200 separate agencies, proved unworkable. Last year it was amended to include only about 40 departments, with 10 coming up for evaluation in each of the next four years.

Mr. Brown and others who have kept close tabs on how state sunset laws are working, cite those in Colorado and Florida as among the most successful. These were the first two states to enact measures.

Early attention in both states has been given to various consumer-related regulatory agencies. Of some 60 boards and commissions scheduled for review in Colorado between 1977 and the mid-1980s, about 25 have been evaluated. Four have been either wiped out or given orders to shut down, Mr. Brown reports.

Similarly, nine usually low-visibility agencies in Florida and nine in Texas have been put out of business or given their phase-out notice within the past four years.

Because the budgets of many of these boards, commissions, and departments generally are small, lawmakers have paid little attention to their activities for years. Were it not for sunset laws, these organizations might have continued their quiet but sometimes powerful activities for decades.

Resistance to such measures has been greatest in some of the larger states, where survival of certain politically entrenched agencies could be threatened or at least hard to justify.

In California, for example, sunset legislation sponsored by state Assembly Speaker Leo McCarthy made it through that chamber early this year but was defeated by one vote in a state Senate committee after heavy lobbying by barbers and cosmetologists, whose board of registration, they feared, might be wiped out.

A similar agency review measure was approved by both branches of Michigan's Democratic-controlled Legislature only to be vetoed by Republican Gov. william G. Milliken. He maintained that lawmakers, through the budget process, already had the power to evaluate various executive agencies. The measure had been watered down considerably. And as sent to the governor, it did not specify which activities would be covered.

Sunset legislation also was under consideration in at least a half dozen states at 1980 lawmaking sessions.

Besides California and Michigan, Delaware, Idaho, Iowa, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin have not enacted sunset laws.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.