Periodically we will present commentaries on topics of interest to community and economic developers across rural Minnesota. Below is a list of all commentaries with the most recent listed first.
All Things Come to an End
In 2008 the Minnesota State Legislature passed a bill creating the Minnesota Ultra-High Speed Broadband Task Force. But unlike many other laws passed that year, the legislation creating the task force also set a date for its ultimate demise. Known as a "sunset clause" it is a provision in legislation that terminates or repeals all or portions of a law after a specific date, unless further legislative action is taken to extend it. So on March 31, 2010 (our sunset date), a congratulatory set of emails were circulated by all task force members celebrating a job well done and our ride into the legislative sunset.
I mention this now that the endorsed candidates for Governor have begun traveling around the state making their case to voters, unions, editorial boards, or just about anyone who will listen. And given Minnesota's current budgetary mess, they are being pointedly asked what programs need to be cut; what agencies need to be consolidated; and possibly, what agencies need to be abolished. To no surprise, few will give details, but more importantly, Minnesota Governors have not had any structured method to answer these important questions.
It's not that Minnesota has been unable to occasionally initiate governmental reforms. Remember when we used to have a State Treasurer, a Department of Economic Security or the agency known as Minnesota Planning? It's just that we all know that once a government program, commission or agency is created in law, over time it develops a constituency that advocates for its continuation and growth. As a result, abolishing or consolidating agencies becomes a legislative battle royal. So what would happen if all government programs, commissions and agencies came with a sunset provision; where after a specified period of time the program or agency would simply go away unless further legislative action were initiated to extend its life? Well believe it or not, some states are doing just that.
In 1977 the State of Texas established the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission; a group comprised of six state senators, six state representatives and two public members. Along with the creation of the commission came the requirement that most state agencies and boards that are not constitutionally mandated would be required to be reviewed by the commission every 12 years. So each year approximately 20-30 state agencies, boards and programs are reviewed by the Sunset Commission and their recommendations are provided to the state legislature as to whether to continue, consolidate or abolish the agency. It's important to note that the Commission does not have the authority to abolish or consolidate any agencies, but rather, for the agency to be continued for another 12 years, specific legislative action must be taken to extend its life.
According to a recent report from the Commission, since its first set of sunset reviews in 1978, 337 agencies have been recommended for continuation, 35 agencies and their functions have been completely abolished; 23 agencies have been abolished and their functions transferred elsewhere; and an additional 12 agencies have been consolidated with similar state agencies. With that said, it is also important to bear in mind that conducting a thorough review of a state agency and its programs is not cheap. According to the same report, since 1982 the Commission has spent nearly $29 million; or more than $1 million per year. At the same time, the report claims that through its recommendations and associated legislative action, the Commission has saved the State of Texas $784 million. It also appears that a few other states have moved in this direction. For example, a quick Google search shows that similar sunset commissions are currently active in both Florida and Alabama; and it appears that back in 2000 the California State Assembly created a similar Joint Legislative Review Committee, but it apparently no longer exists today.
Here in Minnesota a somewhat similar structure can be found in the Legislative Audit Commission; a bipartisan Commission comprised of 6 House members and 6 Senate members equally divided by Democrats and Republicans. Under the leadership of Legislative Auditor James Nobles, the commission's work is viewed as nonpartisan, objective and extremely credible. However, the functions of the Legislative Audit Commission are more ad hoc in nature; taking on a small handful of projects each year at the request of the legislature.
So as various gubernatorial candidates continue to travel around the state telling you which agencies need to be abolished or consolidated, listen with discerning ear. While we need to recognize that the task of downsizing or reforming state government is inherently political, taking a thoughtful approach or engaging a credible structure such as the Legislative Audit Commission.
Geller is professor & head of the Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences at the University of Minnesota, Crookston. He also serves as the director of the federally-funded EDA Center at UMC. He can be reached at email@example.com