Government & Politics

Defying voters, Missouri House passes ‘radical undermining’ of open records law

The Missouri House voted overwhelmingly Thursday to disregard the wishes of voters and weaken the state’s open records law.

The measure, passed by a 103-to-47, vote not only keeps most of their records, including constituent emails, beyond public view, it extends those restrictions to city halls and schools boards across the state.

If signed into law in its current form, the bill would be “the most radical undermining of open records and transparency law in state history,” said Rep. Rep. Jon Carpenter, D-Kansas City.

Missouri lawmakers have long exempted themselves from the state’s open records law. That appeared to change 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 become available for public scrutiny.

The measure also overhauled the legislative redistricting process, lowered campaign contribution limits and eliminated nearly all lobbyist gifts. Those provisions are not impacted by Thursday’s vote.

The bill’s ultimate fate remains unclear. It now goes to the Senate, where it may be amended. Neither Gov. Mike Parson’s office nor state Attorney General Eric Schmitt, who enforces the state’s record law, would offer a clear position.

“The Governor has demonstrated his commitment to an open and transparent government and is a longtime supporter of the sunshine law,” spokeswoman Kelli Jones said in an email earlier this week. “Our office will continue to monitor all legislative proposals as they evolve through the legislative process and will not commit to signing legislation until a final product is reached.”

Proponents of the bill said their principal concern was protecting constituent privacy.

“I totally believe and I totally support the Sunshine Act,” said Rep. Nick Schroer, R-O’Fallon. “But when you now throw legislators into it, which have never been part of the Sunshine Act previously, you have a whole new set of rules.”

Government transparency advocates condemned the legislation.

“I’m stunned that the members of the Missouri legislature would think this is an issue that justifies making this significant of a change to the law that governs openness in the state,” said Jean Maneke, the attorney for the Missouri Press Association.

Under the bill, any records that shed light on deliberations or decision-making can be closed.

The hollowing out of the open records law started on the House floor Monday. Lawmakers agreed to allow the open records changes to be joined to another bill that extends versions of other Clean Missouri reforms to the local level, including the two-year ban on lobbying after leaving office and campaign contribution limits.

But the amended bill also extended the limitations on open records to local city councils, school boards, planning and zoning commissions and law enforcement.

“I think it is a huge reduction in the information the public is going to receive,” Maneke said. “And I don’t think it’s justified.”

Almost as soon as voters approved bringing Missouri lawmakers under the state’s sunshine law, legislators said they were concerned that confidential constituent information sent via email would be made public.

There are already limits to what is available through a public information request. The open records law provides more than 20 exceptions, including those that keep private most materials related to litigation, security, leasing or purchase of real estate, hiring and firing of personnel and identities of welfare recipients.

Though some lawmakers agreed that extending the Clean Missouri transparency rules to local elected officials was a good idea, the open records portion was a sticking point.

“This bill severely weakens the sunshine law,” Rep. Sarah Unsicker, a St. Louis Democrat, said.

She added later: “What are we trying to hide?”

Even the lawmaker tasked with shepherding the bill through the House said he was open to making changes.

Rep. Shamed Dogan, R-Ballwin, said it was necessary to protect constituents privacy. He was less sure about cutting off sunlight to other records.

“I think that might have been an unintentional kind of overreach, so I’m a little bit concerned about that section and I would be willing to work on toning that language down somewhat,” Dogan said. “But I think the other parts of it are really essential.”

The Star’s Jason Hancock contributed to this report.

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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.