NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — When the Tennessee General Assembly convenes next week, it will begin work debating and passing new laws for the state. Some of those laws are more mundane in nature but still critical to the governmental operations in the state.
Nearly 40 provisions introduced by Sen. Kerry Roberts (R – Springfield) deal with what are called “sunset laws.”
These provisions deal with the expiration of certain governmental functions, including the departments of correction, transportation and health, as well as various boards and commissions, including the boards of nursing, pharmacy and medical examiner.
Yes, statewide boards and departments technically have expiration dates, according to state law.
The purpose of this, Roberts told News 2, is to provide a certain level of accountability and transparency for each board, commission or department, also called an “entity.”
“In business we talk about internal control,” he said. “If we have a lunch counter, we want to make sure no one’s pocketing cash. This is one of our internal controls. We do that to make sure that they don’t have mission creep, that they do what they are chartered to do, they stay within the confines of what they’re supposed to do.”
Generally speaking, entities such as the health, correction and transportation departments are renewed on a four-year cycle. Each time the entity is up for renewal, Roberts said, it undergoes an audit by the Tennessee Comptroller’s office and sits before a publicly available hearing to discuss the results of that audit.
Some entities, like interstate compacts, are renewed on an eight-year cycle, Roberts added, noting that some entities are “pretty fixed in nature” and have a “very specific mission” to do and are “not likely to get beyond the scope of their mission.”
“They do the same thing year in and year out, and they really don’t need to be looked at except every few years,” he said. “It is very unusual that we have a sunset that fits that long—for eight years—but sometimes it is appropriate, and it’s the right thing to do.”
Having these sunset provisions is somewhat unique to Tennessee, according to Roberts.
“Not everybody does it,” he said. “We’re more robust than other states are because we’ve got a high standard on who we renew. Even if you end up renewing these people over and over again, the fact that they know that they’ve got so much to go through to get renewed helps them stay transparent and accountable in what they do.”
While nearly every entity is renewed with no issues, there are occasionally problem entities that need more scrutiny.
“Periodically we have one that’s problematic, and we may not continue them, which is very rare,” he said.
What’s more likely to happen, per Roberts, is a change of leadership. “We may reconstitute their board of directors and give them some new leadership or something like that.”
Even that hasn’t happened too frequently.
“I only remember it happening in my tenure, in the 10 years that I’ve done this, I’m going to say maybe three or four times,” Roberts told News 2. “It’s very rare. It doesn’t happen often. It usually is kind of a last resort. It’s an attention-getter. It kind of gets a board’s attention. It is very, very rarely something that happens. And it is a good threat. Sometimes it’s an entirely appropriate threat to be made. Again, we’re trying to look out for the best interests of the taxpayers.”
In total, Roberts said there are 265 different entities that require renewal through the sunset process, though only about a quarter of them are up for renewal consideration each year.
“It’s neat, the way Tennessee does it, and it’s a great level of accountability,” he said. “Other states can look to us as an example. That’s something Tennesseans can be proud of.”
As for why Roberts is the legislator responsible for filing the 39 different sunset provisions, he said it was a function of his role in the leadership.
“As chairman of the government operations committee, anything that has to do with the sunsets or our omnibus rule bill is just automatically assigned to me,” he said. “I’m the one that files all those bills. If we have 500 bills in the course of a session, I guess I’ll probably have about 15 to 20 percent of the whole total with my name on them. It’s just a function of being the chairman of government operations.”
The 113th General Assembly convenes Tuesday, Jan. 10.