The Austin Chronicle

Everything Under the Sun(set)

By Richard Whittaker, December 26, 2008, News

At the final presession meeting of the Sunset Advisory Commission last week, legislators got a reminder of what they're in for when the 81st Legislature convenes on Jan. 13. Across two long days of meetings on Dec. 15-16, the 12-member joint legislative committee continued building recommendations for the future of a slate of state agencies.

One of the biggest agencies up for review this year is the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department. Much like last session, debate centered on getting more money into the parks, while beating up on TPWD remained unpopular as ever (as Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, explained, even her husband had criticized her for failing to protect its budget for two successive sessions). After Rep. Linda Harper Brown, R-Irving, savaged the agency over internal accounting failures and not returning her phone calls about park projects, Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, pushed the discussion back on topic by asking TPWD Executive Director Carter Smith to name the biggest concerns facing his agency. Two consensus points rapidly emerged: First, funding needs to put less burden on hunters and fishers and more on the growing numbers of other recreational users, such as divers and bird watchers; second, somehow, the Legislature and outdoor agencies such as TPWD and the Department of Agriculture (also under review) must tackle what Smith called "the pronounced disconnect between people and the outdoors."

Not every agency got away so easily. The Texas Medical Board is not up for full review until 2016, but in 2007 the Lege ordered an investigation into delays in licensing and disciplinary proceedings. The commission took testimony from doctors and attorneys that hearings often turned into fishing expeditions. Others warned that unresolved allegations, some dating back decades, were pushing licensed doctors out of business because they couldn't get insurance.

But all public testimony was overshadowed by what Chairman Carl Isett, R-Lubbock, called "the main event" – the Texas Youth Commission, its new Office of Indepen­dent Ombudsman, and the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission. In their report, Sun­set staff recommended that TYC and TJPC be integrated into one new agency, the Texas Juvenile Justice Department (see "An End to TYC's Problems ... and to TYC?" Nov. 21). Commission staffers Ginny McKay and Karl Spock said that while they had started looking at them as separate entities, they saw integration as the only way to overcome structural problems and disconnected agency policies. (Sen. Robert Deuell, R-Greenville, echoed the call for a culture change, adding that as a physician, he was deeply concerned that the lack of interagency communication led to untreated medical and psychological conditions among TYC inmates.)

But TJPC Chair Ray West countered that the two agencies have divergent mandates: TYC runs facilities, while his agency provides support for county probation services. Integrate them, he warned, and even though TJPC deals with 95% of children in the justice system, the emphasis will shift to incarceration, "and you're going to have kids going to TYC in droves." Isett quickly nixed that argument, noting that last session, the Legis-lature moved money from TYC to TJPC. While pledging to fund extra burdens placed on the counties, he added, "The money is not the conversation here." While he would look for efficiency savings, he said: "What we want to do is build a system that works for Texas. If we have to spend more money, then we have to spend more money."

Aside from taking testimony, the commission had to make recommendations to the Legislature. Topping that agenda was the Texas Department of Transportation, target of major criticism last session (and that was before the revelation in February of a $1.1 billion "accounting error"). There was consensus for reforming what Isett called "an agency that has been gridlocked since the 1920s," but there was little agreement on what shape reforms should take. The commission couldn't even agree on what was included in the supposedly preapproved consensus document, stripping several items out to be voted on separately. What finally passed unanimously still proposed tougher regulation, including a new legislative transport oversight committee.

Debate then turned to balancing power between the executive director, the Texas Transportation Commission, and external consultants and auditors. Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, D-San Antonio, said there was popular support for replacing the five-member commission with an elected commissioner of transportation, but Isett argued that it would take a change in the agency's culture, not just its leadership structure, to get it back on track. When the commissioner proposal came to a vote, it passed 7-5 – but with several senators joining him in voting nay (Deuell; Kim Brimer, R-Fort Worth; Craig Estes, R-Wich­ita Falls; and Juan "Chuy" Hino­josa, D-Mis­sion), Isett told McClendon, "I suspect you may have trouble getting it out of the Senate."

Of course, now the commission must present its recommendations to the rest of the Legislature – which could completely ignore them.

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