AGENCY ORGANIZATION BILLS PASS COMMITTEE
(AUSTIN) — The Senate Government Organization Committee on Monday approved two bills that would change the way two large state agencies operate, making significant reforms recommended by an interim panel. Each state agency must undergo what is called the sunset process, where lawmakers from both chambers review the operations and scope of an agency and make suggestions for improvement. The Committee passed bills aimed at improving the operations of the Texas Department of Transportation and the Texas Youth Commission.
Under its Sunset Bill, the Texas Department of Transportation would see a number of changes, but the Senate intends to leave the uppermost organizational structure intact. Over the interim, the Sunset review panel divided on the issue of a single commissioner, with the House and public members voting in support of moving from a five-member panel to a single appointed officer overseeing the entire agency. The Senate members unanimously voted in favor of keeping the five member panel. The bill offered before the Senate committee Monday reflects this, and preserves the current leadership model. Bill author Senator Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa believes a panel of commissioners will better reflect the interest of differing urban and rural areas of the state. "A five member board really gives you more diversity as you spread out appointments around the state. We are a pretty large state with many different regions," he said.
Other changes found in the bill presented before the committee Monday are aimed at improving transparency and public input. TxDOT would be required to develop a long term state transportation plan. It would have to set benchmarks, priorities and progress update, and citizens would be able to access this plan on-line. The agency would also be charged with developing a complaints hotline, and develop a system for tracking, reporting and responding to public complaints. Additionally, TxDOT would be required to publish an annual report on the progress of all state transportation.
The second bill would drastically change the state agency charged with dealing with juvenile criminal offenders. SB 653, by Senator John Whitmire of Houston, would combine the Texas Youth Commission and the Juvenile Probation Commission into the Texas Juvenile Justice Department. Whitmire said increased emphasis on keeping juvenile offenders in the community, where they can work with counselors and probation officers in their home towns, has reduced the need for state incarceration facilities. As it stands today, the TYC has 10 state facilities holding about 1400 youth offenders. Under the new bill, with an emphasis on probation and treatment in the community instead of relocating offenders to state institutions, many of these state facilities will not be needed. SB 653 would permit the state to transfer any closed facilities to counties in which they lie, in order to repurpose them for other uses, including possible expansion into the adult criminal justice system. This provision only extends to smaller counties, those with less than 100,000 population.
TYC has been under strict scrutiny since allegations of abuse emerged in 2006. Then, the Legislature placed the agency under a state conservatorship and appointed a special master to oversee agency reforms demanded by lawmakers. While he said the agency has drastically improved in the areas of surveillance, staffing and safety since them, an increased emphasis on community treatment and probation has lessened the need for state facilities, Whitmire did acknowledge that there are some juveniles will not be able to stay in their communities for treatment. "There will always need to be a facility under this model for the worst of the worst," he said. "Some of the more violent youth will need to be confined." Whitmire estimated this number would be less than 400 juveniles statewide.
Both the TxDOT and TYC sunset bills now head to the full Senate for consideration.
The Senate will reconvene Tuesday, April 5 at 11 a.m.