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Do sunset laws create more waste than they cut?

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While Congress grapples with a regulatory reform bill and the Reagan administration continues its drive to limit government rulemaking, some state lawmakers are having second thoughts about a popular method for dealing with their own bureaucratic red tape.

Sunset legislation - laws designed to abolish state agencies after a set period of time unless they are specifically renewed by the legislature - is being faulted for its expense and for creating more of what it is supposed to eliminate: regulations and paper work.

A spate of laws since 1976 has abolished boards regulating everything from barbers and shorthand court reporters in Colorado to alarm installers and an oceanographic foundation in landlocked Vermont. But, say critics, it wasn't worth the expense.

''It hasn't worked out the way we hoped it would,'' says John Chandler, a New Hampshire state senator who originally voted for the sunset law passed there in 1978. ''It sounds good on paper, and I still think the concept is a valid one, but in the last session it did more harm than good. We were so swamped with sunset requirements that we were not only sidetracked from regular business, but a lot of agencies ended up with rubber stamp renewals anyway.''

In the late 1970s, growing public disenchantment with big government, mounting budget deficits, and overregulation created a mood in state legislatures in which sunset legislation flourished. When the snowball stopped rolling, 35 states had such laws.

But the failure of sunset legislation to live up to its billing has resulted in repeal in North Carolina. Oklahoma and Arkansas will likely follow in the next session, and several other states are considering such action.

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