The Buzz

Critics ask ‘what would be left?’ under Senate version of open records bill

The Missouri Capitol in Jefferson City
The Missouri Capitol in Jefferson City File photo

The Missouri Senate is considering a new measure to close off records from the public, and while the legislation is less far-reaching than a controversial proposal passed by the House last week, it is still drawing criticism from government transparency advocates.

Discussions on the Senate bill started Tuesday, just days after the House passed a similar measure that one Democratic opponent called “the most radical undermining of open records and transparency law in state history.”

Sen. Ed Emery, a Lamar Republican who sponsored the Senate legislation, said he had not thoroughly reviewed the House bill, but he “has some problems with it.”

“I’m hoping this one is actually the one that moves forward,” he said.

Under the House version, passed by a 103-to-47 vote, any records that shed light on deliberations or decision-making can be closed. The legislation extended the limitations on open records to local city councils, school boards, planning and zoning commissions and law enforcement. Constituent emails, a major privacy concern for many lawmakers, would also be kept private under the bill.

The Senate bill is more narrowly drawn, though it still closes records for members of the Missouri General Assembly.

It shields from the public “any record,” involving a constituent of a legislator. The bill also seals off any record “that contains information regarding proposed legislation or the legislative process.”

A record would not be closed if it “has been offered in a public meeting” in the Missouri General Assembly.

Another provision establishes a minimum fee of $5 for a records request, Emery said, and adds a deadline of 30 days for payment. If the fees go unpaid, the records request will be considered withdrawn.

Two organizations that promote government transparency, the Missouri Press Association and the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri testified against the bill.

The association said records of lawmakers’ deliberations should be be open.

“What we’re concerned about is, it seems like it would close down a lot of things, almost everything,” said Mark Maassen, the association’s executive director. “We’re kind of wondering what would be left open after this type of legislation.”

Missouri lawmakers have argued in the past they were exempt from the state’s open records law. That changed late last year, when voters passed the ballot question known as Clean Missouri with a 62 percent majority. It required that state legislators’ emails, calendars and other materials be available for public scrutiny.

“I recognize that the voters want increased transparency and especially access to communications between lobbyists and legislators,” Emery said. “This bill does not close records of the communications between lobbyists and legislators.”

Officials with both organizations said they were still discussing the bill with Emery.

One member of the Senate committee hearing the bill, Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer, R-Parkville, said he has some reservations about the legislation. Luetkemeyer wants a clearer definition of constituent communication.

“One of the issues that immediately comes to mind is that there are certain lobbyists, for example, who would be constituents of members of the Legislature,” he said. “I think we need to make sure that we’re carving that out so that if there is a legislator who has a lobbyist that happens to live in their district, those communications are still subject to the sunshine law.”

Luetkemeyer added that closing lawmakers records on deliberations or decision-making “is a little bit more concerning,” to him.

“As drafted right now, it would really remove all of the things that voters were saying when they voted in favor of Amendment One,” Luetkemeyer said. “And so that concerns me.”

Hunter Woodall is a political reporter for The Kansas City Star, covering the Missouri General Assembly and state government. Before turning to Missouri politics, he worked as The Star’s Kansas political corespondent.