ERCOT, for the first time in its nearly 40-year history, faces review by the Sunset Advisory Commission. Consumer groups, industry representatives and other stakeholders are expected to provide input for the review, which will then become the basis of legislation that could lead to dramatic changes for the organization.

Created in 1977, the Sunset Advisory Commission is a legislative body charged with reducing waste in state government by assessing the continued effectiveness and necessity of agencies. It is made up of five members appointed by the speaker of the Texas House of Representatives and five members appointed by the lieutenant governor, who presides over the Senate. The chair of the Sunset Advisory Commission is state Sen. Glen Hegar, Jr., of Katy.

ERCOT has already submitted a self-evaluation report to the Sunset Commission staff, which is expected to issue its preliminary findings in mid-April. The public will then get a chance to comment on those findings during a public hearing in May, and the Commission will amend the report and take a final vote in July. This final report (which will include changes ordered by the Sunset Advisory Commission) will form the basis of legislation that is expected to be filed for the 82nd Texas Legislature that convenes in January, 2011.

That the Sunset Advisory Commission is even reviewing ERCOT is unusual. Traditionally the Sunset Commission evaluates only state agencies, such as the Public Utility Commission — and not quasi-governmental non-profit corporations, such as ERCOT. But state Rep. Burt Solomons, chair of the House State Affairs Committee, pushed to include the ERCOT review in legislation adopted during a brief special session in 2009. Solomons had expressed displeasure with some of ERCOT’s spending practices — specifically citing the over-budget nodal transition — and also said that conducting a Sunset-style review in 2010 made sense, given that the PUC and the Office of Public Utility Counsel also were undergoing the Sunset process.

Typically, state agencies come up for Sunset review once every 12 years and agencies under such review are automatically abolished unless the Texas Legislature adopts legislation to continue them. But because ERCOT is not a state agency, lawmakers will not need to pass a new bill to maintain its existence. Another distinction between the ERCOT “special purpose review” and more typical Sunset reviews is that the cost of the ERCOT evaluation will be paid for by ERCOT itself — and therefore passed onto electric ratepayers. With other Sunset evaluations the cost is paid by tax dollars.

Besides Chairman Hegar, the other lieutenant governor appointees to the Commission include Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa of McAllen, Sen. Joan Huffman of Lake Jackson, Sen. Robert Nichols of Jacksonville, Sen. John Whitmire of Houston and public member Charles McMahen. Sens. Huffman, Nichols and Whitmire and public member McMahen were newly appointed by Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in October. On Nov. 9 House Speaker Joe Straus appointed Rep. Dennis Bonnen of Angleton to serve as vice chairman for the Commission. He also appointed as new members Rep. Rafael Anchia of Dallas, Rep. Bryon Cook of Corsicana, and public member Lamont Jefferson. House members serving existing terms are Reps. Linda Harper-Brown of Irving and Carl Isett of Lubbock.

— R.A. Dyer