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What Texans need to know about the must-pass 'sunset' bills

By Alex Samuels

Texas’ 85th legislative session may have come to a close, but things are about to heat back up.

During the regular session, must-pass “sunset” legislation didn’t make it to the governor’s desk, jeopardizing several government agencies, including the Texas Medical Board. On Tuesday, Gov. Greg Abbott announced he would call lawmakers back for a special session in mid-July.

The first item on the agenda? The sunset legislation.

After this measure passes both chambers, the governor said he would add another 19 items to the call, including a “bathroom bill” and public school finance reform. We’ve compiled an overview of what it could mean for the state if sunset legislation doesn’t pass and the affected agencies aren’t reauthorized.

What are sunset bills, and why didn’t they pass?

The Texas Sunset Advisory Commission reviews the operation and efficiency of more than 150 state agencies. Most agencies undergo sunset review every 12 years. Those state agencies must survive periodic reviews by the Legislature or be forced to shut down.

Five members of the House, five senators and two public members make up the panel. Members conduct comprehensive evaluations of agencies such as the Texas Department of Transportation, the Railroad Commission, the Texas Public Utility Commission, the Department of Insurance and others.

Twenty-five agencies were scheduled for sunset reviews during the 2016-17 biennium. After seeking public input, the commission adopted recommendations on how to improve each agency’s operations and to recommend whether each should continue to exist.

According to the commission, the agencies under review during this cycle include:

State Bar of Texas

Central Colorado River Authority

Texas Board of Chiropractic Examiners

Texas State Board of Examiners of Professional Counselors,

State Board of Dental Examiners

Board of Trustees of Employees Retirement System of Texas

Health Licensing Consolidation Project

Board of Law Examiners

Texas State Board of Examiners of Marriage and Family Therapists

Texas Medical Board

Texas Board of Nursing

Texas Board of Occupational Therapy Examiners

Texas Optometry Board

Palo Duro River Authority of Texas

Texas State Board of Pharmacy

Executive Council of Physical Therapy and Occupational Therapy Examiners

Texas Board of Physical Therapy Examiners

Texas State Board of Podiatric Medical Examiners

Texas State Board of Examiners of Psychologists

Railroad Commission of Texas

Texas State Board of Social Worker Examiners

Sulphur River Basin Authority

Texas Department of Transportation

Upper Colorado River Authority

State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners

But during this year’s regular session, the following agencies did not receive the approval needed to continue:

Texas Medical Board

Texas State Board of Social Worker Examiners

Texas State Board of Examiners of Marriage and Family Therapists

Texas State Board of Examiners of Psychologists

Texas State Board of Examiners of Professional Counselors

Several attempts to pass “safety net” legislation extending the lives of those five agencies for another two years fell short, forcing the governor to call a special session to keep them alive.

How does this play into the tension between the House and Senate?
Because the sunset legislation didn’t pass, each chamber accused the other of inaction on what everyone called “critical legislation.”

In late May, House members of the Sunset Advisory Commission accused the Senate of playing games with Texans’ health and safety by holding back legislation that would keep the Texas Medical Board in existence.

Shortly after that, in their own news conference, members of the Senate said that the House had created problems that can only be fixed in a special session of the Legislature.

The sunset standoff is the latest skirmish between the two chambers. While sunset bills are critical to keeping state agencies open, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick threatened to hold legislation hostage to force a special session if the Legislature would not act on a “bathroom bill” to regulate bathroom use for transgender Texans and property tax legislation to require voter approval when local tax collections increase 5 percent.

State Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano, later said that the House “created the crisis you see in front of you today,” and argued that while the House’s proposed fix on the pending sunset legislation would continue five agencies at risk of closing, it would not extend chapters of state code.

Why is it so important the Legislature passes this measure?
The sunset safety net bill that didn’t pass would have kept a handful of state agencies alive until after the next legislative session.

One agency Texans may be looking out for is the Texas Medical Board, without which the state has no way to license doctors. Without action by the Legislature, the agencies without regulations would enter a one-year “wind-down” period after Sept. 1, 2017, in which they would begin the process of shutting down completely.

Will there be no doctors in Texas if the Legislature doesn’t work this out?
Amid dueling press conferences on May 28 between the House and Senate, Taylor said that there are “205,000 Texans who are licensed by these boards and without these boards and without these statutes, you’re not going to have a doctor in the state of Texas.”

Joey Longley, the former director of the Texas Sunset Commission, said that even if the Legislature fails to pass sunset legislation, there will still be doctors in the state of Texas. They just won’t have licenses.  

“Anybody, anywhere could call themselves a doctor, and who is going to challenge that? There’d be no statute that says you have to do anything to be a doctor," Longley told The Texas Tribune.

“There are no secret passages out of this,” he added.

Has this happened before?

Unlike previous legislative years, the safety net bill was not placed on the Major State Calendar, which would have fast-tracked it through the legislative process. This year, the bill was placed on the Daily House Calendar with several other measures, which made it harder for the bill to pass through the lower chamber.

But this isn’t the first time the lawmakers failed to pass a sunset bill. The predicament the Legislature is in now is reminiscent of 2009, when both chambers failed to pass another “sunset safety bill” to keep state agencies like the Texas Department of Transportation and the Racing Commission from shutting down. A special session followed.

“Essentially, they’ve got to come back if they don’t pass something,” Longley said. “They’ve got to take care of the Texas Medical Board and those other health professions whose boards are also going away.”

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune. 

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