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Sunset Reviews Start Off With Standoff

Rep. Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton) lead what was at times a tense meeting between the Sunset and Judicial Conduct Commissions.
Photo by Ben Philpott for KUT News
Rep. Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton) lead what was at times a tense meeting between the Sunset and Judicial Conduct Commissions.

The Texas Sunset Advisory Commission has begun to hear reports on five state agencies this morning at the Capitol. Those agencies will be up for review during the 2013 legislative session.

The state's sunset laws require all state agencies to be reviewed. Then the Sunset Commission sends recommendations for changes or even elimination.

Highlights of the meeting are expected to be presentations on the state Ethics Commission and the Higher Education Coordinating Board. But the meeting got kicked off with staff letting the Sunset Commission appointees know that the State Commission on Judicial Conduct denied access to all of the commission's processes.

Sunset staff said being denied access kept them from being able to determine if the agency is doing its job effectively and efficiently – and could set a bad precedent of other agencies denying access to the Sunset Commission.

Members of the Judicial Conduct Commission were given time to give their side of the story, but Sunset chair, Representative Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton), appeared to take little sympathy on the agency's reasons for not allowing full access. Bonnen and Senator John Whitmire (D-Houston) also took offense to Judicial Conduct Commission Executive Director Seana Willing's belief that "someone went to the media" with the Sunset report and that the agency has been attacked in reports stating the commission was denying access.

Bonnen said he doesn't control the state's free press. And the issue at hand is why the Judicial Conduct Commission believes it doesn't have to allow Sunset staff access to all information.

When Sunset takes up the Texas Ethics Commission, the staff report will recommend giving the agency more powers to police lawmakers. The state's government watchdog groups support that move  – but one is already pushing forward with a tool to help citizens do their own research of the state's campaign finance report system.

Texas Impact has released a webpage called "See For Yourself," which takes users step-by-step through the state's Ethics Commission's search functions.

Watchdog groups hope the Sunset review process will push the Ethics Commission to make it easier to find information about who is giving and how much is being given to state lawmakers.

Ben Philpott is the Managing Editor for KUT. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @BenPhilpottKUT.
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