published Monday, August 1st, 2011

Legislators’ use of ‘Sunset Law’ questioned

NASHVILLE — Recent disputes in the Tennessee legislature are once again raising questions about whether Tennessee lawmakers are using a 1970s anti-bureaucracy law to pressure regulatory agencies.

The law created what is known as “sunset” provisions, aimed at ensuring agencies don’t run indefinitely. The legislature has conducted reviews of state agencies since 1977, when it set up the process of letting state departments, agencies and boards “sunset” or go out of business, unless lawmakers voted to reauthorize them.

Tennessee lawmakers have held up reauthorization of at least 11 agencies amid questions about their policies and enforcement decisions. The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation has opened an inquiry into the actions of two state representatives in one dispute dealing with the disciplining of three East Tennessee nurse practitioners.

These political battles appear to have grown more frequent as Republicans have gained control over the legislature, The Tennessean reported.

During the past five years, regulators who oversee areas as varied as liquor, air pollution and elections have had their existence challenged by lawmakers, as have the groups that name and review the state’s judges.

“It does seem to be a new weapon,” said Pat Nolan, a Nashville commentator who has followed the state legislature for more than three decades. “This at least gives them the opportunity to take a look and see if agencies, boards and commissions still make sense. But the question is, how do you balance that, instead of turning these things into political footballs?”

Lawmakers have allowed 112 agencies to sunset, including those that oversaw boxing, horse racing and the railroads.

“Is it higher than in the past?” said Democratic Rep. Mike Kernell, a former chairman of the Government Operations Committee, which conducts sunset reviews. “When a new group gets in, they’re going to have a different perspective. . They are raising new issues as Republicans.”

The TBI confirmed that it is looking into whether state Rep. Tony Shipley, R-Kingsport, and Rep. Dale Ford, R-Jonesborough, strong-armed the Board of Nursing into reconsidering the suspensions of three nurse practitioners accused of over-prescribing narcotics.

Shipley has said he held up reauthorization of the board to force it to hear the nurses’ defense. The Board of Nursing reversed its decision in May. A week later, the state House of Representatives voted to extend the board’s authorization for another year.

Lawmakers declined to reauthorize the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and its 13-member commission, which oversees hunting, fishing, boating and other outdoor activities in the state.

Some state lawmakers have complained that wildlife officers have been overaggressive in their enforcement of state regulations, in some cases punishing their personal friends and relatives. By not reauthorizing the agency, lawmakers effectively gave the TWRA a year to resolve its differences with lawmakers or cease operations.

“There are a lot of issues that some legislators had about responsiveness,” said Rep. Jim Cobb, R-Spring City, the Government Operations Committee’s chairman. “We’re going to level it out.”

The legislature has placed at least nine other Tennessee boards, most of them dealing with public health, in the position of having to convince lawmakers of their worth within the next 12 months or wrap up their work.

Similar actions have been weighed recently with dozens of more state regulators.

Last year, the legislature considered shutting down the Alcoholic Beverage Commission, citing a bad audit. It also debated sunsetting the Court of the Judiciary, amid questions about whether it has been aggressive enough in pursuing disciplinary action against judges.

Republicans also have used sunsetting to try to force broader changes in state government. Last year, the renewals of dozens of agencies went down to the wire as Senate Republicans tried to curb the practice of giving particular interest groups seats on state boards and commissions.

In 2008, Senate Republicans refused to approve the renewal of about 60 agencies in a bid to overhaul the Judicial Selection Commission, which nominates judges to state courts.

“That’s what we’re supposed to do,” said state Sen. Stacey Campfield, a Knoxville Republican who formerly served on the House Government Operations Committee. “They are under the auspices of the legislature.”

Gov. Bill Haslam said the sunsetting process has performed a useful role.

“There’s a benefit to sunsetting. You set up a committee for one purpose, and maybe after four or five years or 50 years, it may not be serving that same purpose,” he said.

“I also don’t like it when people use their leverage to accomplish maybe a personal agenda. It should always be about what is best for government.”

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