Democrats want to ‘sunset’ the state sunset commission

by T.W. Budig
ECM Capitol reporter

A commission designed to judge whether state agencies, councils or boards have outlived their usefulness may itself cease to exist.

The Democratic-controlled House and Senate have voted to abolish the Sunset Advisory Commission, a 12-member commission championed by Republicans as offering greater accountability and efficiency in state government.

Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, glaces over while chairing a Senate committee. (Photo by T.W. Budig)
Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, glaces over while chairing a Senate committee. (Photo by T.W. Budig)

“I think they’re (Democrats) scared,” Rep. Joyce Peppin, R-Rogers, said of taking tough votes on the commission.

A product of 2011 legislation, the Sunset Advisory Commission is patterned after a 30-year-old commission in Texas, one billed as having saved the Lone Star State almost $1 billion at a cost of about $33 million.

Minnesota’s Sunset Commission reviews state agencies and recommends whether a given agency should continue to exist.

Its powers are limited.

The commission cannot extend the life of agencies scheduled to sunset, nor can it abolish agencies not scheduled to automatically sunset.

But Republicans stress, too, that part of the commission’s task is to make recommendations regarding improved efficiency — don’t judge it merely by counting the number of agencies given a thumbs down, they argue.

Commission recommendations for 2012 include continuing the Council on Black Minnesotans for two years, merging the Combative Sports Commission and the Amateur Sports Commission.

A number of big agencies – the Department of Health, the Department of Human Services and the Department of Education – are scheduled for review in 2014.

Sen Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, studies a document in a Senate committee. (Photo by T.W. Budig)
Sen Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, studies a document in a Senate committee. (Photo by T.W. Budig)

“It’s baffling to me,” said Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, who as a House member served as co-chair of sunset advisory commission, of the push to can the commission.

“They didn’t give it a chance to fulfill it,” Kiffmeyer of the commission’s mission.

The commission asked uncomfortable questions, Kiffmeyer said.

And these basic questions often are not asked, Kiffmeyer said.

“The status quo is so easy,” she said.

Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, a reform-minded lawmaker, co-chaired the commission with Kiffmeyer. Like Kiffmeyer, Bonoff spoke of having a good working relationship.

The commission did good work last year, Bonoff said.

But some senators, Bonoff said, are concerned about the “high stakes nature” of the sunset commission, she said.

A big reason she asked to serve on the commission, Bonoff said, was because she felt concern, too.

Bonoff, like other Democrats, argues the commission is itself duplicative.

“If committee chairs are doing their jobs, they should be doing this kind of detailed oversight,” she said.

Additionally, Bonoff questioned the reasonableness of having the commission make recommendations on big state agencies, like the Department of Human Services, “at the whim of getting legislators, who have political reasons for doing things, to all come together.”

The idea of duplication was voiced by another commission member, Rep. Michael Nelson, DFL-Brooklyn Park.

“One of the tasks of the sunset commission is to get rid of duplicative government functions,” he said.

There’s already the Office of the Legislative Auditor.

Why have both? Nelson asks.

Nelson further criticized the commission for lacking sufficient staff, arguing the Texas Sunset Commission is much beefier.

That state’s commission lists a dozen policy analysts alone.

Nelson explained his desire to serve on the Sunset Advisory Commission as cautionary.

“I wanted to be on it, because I wanted someone to be there who didn’t support it, to make sure it didn’t go off into some wild direction,” Nelson said.

“It didn’t work,” House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, said of the commission.

Thissen styled the commission reviewing big state agencies that would never be eliminated as “mission overreach.”

Peppin believes some of the Democrats on the commission — Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton appointed two former Democratic lawmakers for 2011-12 — wanted to see the commission fail.

“I think so. Yes,” Peppin said.

Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles said his office is “neutral” on the fate of the commission.

“I don’t see this as black or white, good or bad,” Nobles said.

Nobles believes his office, by diving deep into the numbers, by having staff immerse itself into state agencies, can offer detail and scrutiny the commission is unequipped to provide.

Beyond this, a sunset commission, by following a year-to-year schedule, may be looking at one agency while lawmakers actually want to look at another.

Peppin sees a rush to judgement.

“We only had a year before we deemed it a failure,” Peppin, longtime advocate and commission member, said.

The Sunset Advisory Commission itself has a sunset date, 2018, Peppin said.

Democrats simply don’t want to take tough votes, she said.

“They don’t want to do what needs to be done,” Peppin said.

Under the state law, most state boards, councils and commissions automatically sunset unless the Legislature acts to extend them.

Cabinet-level state agencies do not automatically sunset.

Tim Budig can be reached at [email protected]



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