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Pilot Projects and Sunset Dates in California Legislation

There are numerous examples in California legislation and statutes of pilot programs

By Chris Micheli, October 20, 2021 3:43 pm

California, like most other states, occasionally establish a “pilot program,” which is basically a study or temporary program established by statute, often combined with a study and sunset date. The idea behind pilot program legislation is to give a public policy proposal a try. As part of this effort, there is usually an effort to collect data and determine whether the temporarily adopted program is meeting expectations.

In some instances, a pilot program includes a formal study, perhaps even with an independent third-party conducting the data collection, evaluation, and reporting. There may even be oversight to ensure that the program is being used as intended so that a proper evaluation can be made. As a result, a pilot project is a short-term statutory program used to evaluate perhaps an entirely new or innovative program or operation.

At the conclusion of the pilot program, a report is usually required to be presented to the Legislature in order for elected legislators to determine whether the pilot project met expectations and, if so, whether it should continue for another definite period of time, or perhaps even be made permanent.

What might this evaluation look like? It is best when a pilot project is established with stated goals that the pilot project is intended to achieve, the reasons for the project, and perhaps why this particular approach was chosen. Costs associated with administering and complying with the program would also be reviewed.

There are numerous examples in California legislation and statutes of pilot programs. A reader is likely to see language along the following lines:

Establishing the pilot project: State or local government shall administer the pilot project with the goal of __. The pilot project shall commence on January 1, 2022 and end on December 31, 2025. Under the pilot project, ____.

Studying the project: The department shall work with at least one independent, research-based institution to identify existing, and establish additional, outcome measurements. These measurements shall inform an evaluation report that shall be provided to the Legislature after the conclusion of each year of the pilot program. Notwithstanding any other law, the department may accept and expend funds from nongovernment sources for the evaluation, for a longitudinal study. The report shall include, but not be limited to, all of the following information, with respect to the period of evaluation:

Sunsetting the project: This section shall become inoperative on January 1, 2026. OR This section shall remain in effect only until January 1, 2026, and as of that date is repealed.

Turning to sunset dates, which are often found in a pilot project, they are referred to as “sunset provisions,” “sunset clauses,” “sunset dates,” or “sunset laws.” Basically, they are a statute or a provision of a statute that established a date on which the provision of law (such as a pilot project) will expire without any further legislative action.

California, like most other states, uses sunset dates in legislation, which has the effect of making the law, once enacted, expire on a specified date. Unless the Legislature enacts another bill to either extend or eliminate the sunset date, the law will expire, or “sunset.” Sunset dates usually run from one to five years, but some do as long as a decade.

These sunset or expiration clauses are generally used to allow the legislative branch to revisit a statute to check on how the law has been implemented by the executive branch. Sunset clauses are used primarily by the states, but Congress has only used them sparingly.

There are other instances when the Legislature may want a statute to be temporary in application. For example, legislation that is viewed as an experiment or being tried for the first time. The Legislature may want to check on how the law has worked for a few years before making it permanent.

In addition, controversial legislation may be established with a sunset date as a possible compromise. The Legislature may choose to give a contested bill an opportunity to prove itself with a temporary status. While a sunset clause does often stand on its own, a sunset clause is almost always used with a pilot project.

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