For an inside look at the sunrise process, we spoke with officials responsible for sunrise reviews in three states with well-established processes and generally strong reviews—Colorado, Vermont and Virginia. What they told us about their processes shows the variety of ways sunrise review can be done. Even so, a few key themes emerged. Most notably, all three officials agreed about the importance of (1) their statutory mandates, (2) their institutional cultures and (3) resources.
Statutory mandates, they said, provide guiding principles and, sometimes, objective criteria for conducting reviews. They ground reviewers to their legal duty and make it easier for them to do their job in the face of pressure from interested parties. But legal guidance alone is not enough; institutional culture is also critical. All three approach their task not only with a commitment to statutory mandates, but also with a serious and skeptical frame of mind. Whether information comes from regulation proponents, opponents or anyone in between, they take nothing at face value and conduct their own fact-finding and analysis. On the final piece, reviewers agreed on the importance of resources, particularly dedicated sunrise staff, ample time for reviews and access to experts.
Ahead, we recap our conversations with each reviewer. From them, lawmakers and policymakers looking to enact or improve a sunrise process can draw hands-on lessons about what makes sunrise work.
Colorado’s sunrise reviewer is a “lean, mean machine.” So says Brian Tobias, executive director of the Colorado Office of Policy, Research and Regulatory Reform, the six-person office within the Department of Regulatory Agencies that works on sunrise and other policy analyses. In speaking with us, Tobias described how his office searches for evidence of harm, consulting stakeholders and experts but also doing its own research. He also highlighted institutional and cultural factors that help the office remain independent and objective.
Colorado’s sunrise process was, Tobias explained, “created to provide the legislature with objective research.” He said his office’s work was “centered on the question of: Is the public being harmed absent regulation that will justify state intervention?” With this mandate in mind, the office consults with stakeholders, including the parties who requested regulation, any parties who oppose regulation, and consumer groups. To make sure no one is left out, anyone else who wishes to engage in the process can use the office’s online comment portal. The office also leans on the extensive network of experts it has built over the years to obtain “as much diverse input as practicable.” The office generally meets with each stakeholder group separately, avoiding the town hall-style forums or hearings common in other states. Tobias believes this format allows for a deeper dive into subjects, resulting in a better understanding of harm and any need for regulation.
Tobias’ office also conducts its own independent research into whether regulation is needed, including compiling literature reviews and searching for complaints and other evidence of actual consumer harm both in and outside Colorado. And when searching for complaints of harm, the staff focuses on ones that (1) are specific and (2) “would merit disciplinary action.” Tobias said, “[t]he more specific someone can make it for us, the better.”
According to Tobias, his office is structured to be objective and well insulated from outside pressure. While not its own entirely independent department—something Tobias explained the Colorado Constitution does not allow—the office is housed away from the General Assembly, keeping it safely distanced from the political process. The sunrise process also takes place before any regulatory bill is introduced. And although part of the executive’s Department of Regulatory Agencies, the office operates independently of the umbrella agency’s regulatory functions. This helps it avoid the problems that can arise from mixing the roles of sunrise reviewer and regulator, while also allowing staff to focus on their policy analyses.
Tobias said he and his staff continuously strive to remain objective. They “know that [stakeholders are] trying to convince us to go one way or the other.” Moreover, he said it was “natural” that they would do so. But they also know that stakeholders and the occasional run-in with legislators can jeopardize the sunrise process’s integrity if the office fails to remember its role: “We don’t want politics to play into the review process. This is a fact-finding mission to find out whether this profession needs to be regulated according to the criteria that we have.” Accordingly, the staff attempts to maintain a healthy skepticism toward all parties involved in a review.
The office’s legal mandate, institutional culture and relative independence all help Colorado’s review process avoid political influence and stay focused on its mission of determining whether proposed regulations are justified by consumer harm.
Lauren Hibbert is the director of Vermont’s Office of Professional Regulation, which is home to the small team that produces Vermont’s sunrise reviews. She told us of the team’s culture of objectivity and transparency, crediting it—as well as the detailed sunrise reports that result—to the state’s strong sunrise law. She also told us of some challenges her team faces.
According to Hibbert, the sunrise team’s culture of objectivity comes from simply trying to adhere to its statutory role: “We do not want to be seen as advocating in one way or the other, just making a recommendation based on our analysis, [the framework for] which is pretty much set out in statute.” As she explained, the principle behind Vermont’s sunrise reviews is: “Is there significant public harm that warrants government intrusion into the marketplace?” In line with that principle, the team recommends regulation only when it identifies significant harm and the regulation is narrowly tailored to realistically alleviate that harm. Hibbert noted that the team is “careful that we’re . . . not overpromising what the government intrusion is going to be able to cure or solve.”
To investigate whether regulation is necessary and targeted to protect the public, the team generally takes the following approach. First, it asks the individual or group proposing regulation to articulate the harm it wants to remedy. Second, it seeks the public’s input via meetings and comments. Third, it identifies how the occupation is regulated in other states, including enforcement and disciplinary laws. Finally, it seeks as much information as possible on the costs and benefits of regulating, including using other states’ occupational regulations to help it find and interpret information about harms, such as complaints, enforcement actions, insurance malpractice and small claims, and lawsuits.
Hibbert also explained the law’s high standards and level of detail serve another practical purpose. Specifically, they help the team do its job by making the expectations for sunrise review clear to everyone—stakeholders, the public and the team itself. This helps the team feel safe from stakeholder pressure and maintain its independent, impartial stance. If challenged, the team can always show how its recommendations simply follow the law neutrally.
In addition to striving for objectivity, the team strives for transparency, something Hibbert attributes to both the state’s sunrise law—which promotes transparency and public engagement—and the team’s experience. She described how in the past the team kept quiet about where an inquiry was headed with the result that stakeholders felt blindsided by its final recommendations. She said it is best to “be expressive about what your concerns are,” give stakeholders a chance to respond, and then try to “work in their opposition to your position and your response to their opposition.” That way, “you prevent them from saying you didn’t give them the opportunity to be fully heard.”
The team’s work is not without challenges. For example, regulation proponents tend to try to bypass the sunrise process. Instead of filing an application with the Office of Professional Regulation as the law requires, proponents usually go straight to the General Assembly with their requests, just as they would in non-sunrise states. It has therefore become part of OPR’s job to educate regulation proponents and legislators about its existence, and Hibbert said awareness has improved over time.
Hibbert cited human capital as another challenge. The four OPR staff who work on sunrise also have other duties, including management and administration as well as other regulatory and policy work. This can make it challenging to meet deadlines while maintaining the team’s high standards. Despite these challenges, OPR’s sunrise team consistently produces rigorous reports.
An advisory board of Virginia’s Department of Health Professions, the Board of Health Professions is responsible for the state’s sunrise reviews of health occupations. BHP’s reviews are thorough, which the board’s executive director, Elizabeth Carter, largely attributes to the board’s detailed policies and procedures document and human capital.
Virginia’s sunrise law begins with a strong statement about its purpose: helping to uphold “the right of every person to engage in any lawful profession, trade or occupation,” which “is clearly protected by both the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Virginia.” The board’s policies and procedures document reiterates this view. It states, “The occupational property rights of the individual may be abridged only to the degree necessary to protect the public. This tenet is clearly stipulated in statute and serves as the Board’s overarching philosophy in its approach to all its reviews.” As Carter put it, “if you’re not harming anybody, there’s no need to regulate you.”
The importance of BHP’s policies and procedures document—which the board proudly calls its “cookbook” and “bible”—cannot be overstated. In addition to describing the board’s philosophy, it outlines the board’s review criteria, methodology and best practices. Having all this guidance rolled into one handy document helps the board fulfill its statutory duties and produce rigorous sunrise reports with objective recommendations. The document is publicly available online, which also promotes transparency in the sunrise process.
By law, proponents are supposed to apply for sunrise review with the board, but most take their request for regulation straight to the General Assembly, which then requests the review. The board next puts the ball back in proponents’ court by asking them to submit an application. But BHP does not take the information they provide at face value. Carter said BHP recognizes that the vast majority of requests come from groups seeking regulation of their own occupations and that these groups often appear to see licensure as “a prize” or a way “to restrict the market.” Accordingly, and in line with the board’s statutory mandate, BHP maintains a healthy skepticism toward requests for regulation.
BHP takes a similar approach when it comes to interactions with legislators, who may try to influence the sunrise process. During training, board members are told that they cannot have “sidebars” with legislators—that they need to stay outside the political process, in other words. The message is, as Carter put it, “‘Go do your study, objectively as best you can,’ and then somebody else deals with the political side of things.” This, she said, gives the board an “extra level of independence.”
Instead of getting bogged down in the political process, BHP endeavors to keep its eye on what the law requires to justify regulation: actual evidence of harm. As part of its search, it has a robust comment process in which it seeks to involve as many stakeholders as possible. To this end, the board posts notices intended to get members of the public, especially consumers, to attend in-person public forums and provide written comments. In addition to helping the board get a fuller picture of the need—or lack thereof—for regulation, this promotes transparency in the process.
BHP’s policies and procedures document goes a long way toward explaining the state’s rigorous sunrise reviews. But Carter said the board’s abundant resources, specifically its human capital, are also critical. The board’s five-member Regulatory Research Committee—selected annually—conducts sunrise reviews as its main job, but it can, for expert support, look to the rest of the board’s 18 total governor-appointed members. The board’s four full-time staff and other regulators and administrators from the Department of Health Professions are also available. For example, the RRC can seek help from the department’s Healthcare Workforce Data Center, whose staff includes a part-time economist. And when the RRC has an especially heavy workload, the board is able to bring in a contractor, graduate student or other temporary assistance to help.
Carter believes BHP’s approach to sunrise review—its detailed policies and procedures document, its culture of skepticism and transparency, and its wealth of resources—serves the state well and could serve as a model for other states.