Government & Politics

Missouri bills limit access to some public records

Missouri lawmakers have sent several bills to the desk of Gov. Jay Nixon that would limit access to some public records.
Missouri lawmakers have sent several bills to the desk of Gov. Jay Nixon that would limit access to some public records. The Kansas City Star

Gov. Jay Nixon will decide in the coming weeks whether Missouri should restrict access to some public records.

Several bills cleared the Missouri General Assembly this year that would limit the public’s ability to see police body-camera footage and agricultural data. Nixon, a Democrat, has not signaled whether he will sign or veto the bills.

Critics, who worry the bills are an erosion of government transparency, are divided about what they want the governor to do.

The Missouri Press Association, which represents newspapers around the state, worked with lawmakers to reduce the scope of records that would be closed.

“We are not calling for a veto,” said Mark Maassen, executive director of the association. “We don’t ever like to have records closed, but these bills are something we can live with.”

Meanwhile, the Missouri chapter of the Humane Society of the United States says despite improvements, the bill closing some agriculture records still goes too far and should be vetoed.

“It’s definitely better than where it started,” said Amanda Good, state director for the Humane Society. “But it’s still a very bad bill.”

Legislation passed with bipartisan support in the House and Senate would close any records submitted as part of any agriculture program considered voluntary. That would include a program that tracks animal disease.

Sen. Brian Munzlinger, a Lewis County Republican, said during debate on the bill that farmers would be more willing to submit information to the government if they knew it couldn’t be disclosed.

“This bill is about protecting the individual privacy of farmers and ranchers,” he said.

Originally the bill, House Bill 1414, blocked public access to all data collected on animal health or environmental protections. Sen. Rob Schaaf, a St. Joseph Republican, voiced concern about the impact of such a broad exemption from the state’s open records laws.

Specifically, Schaaf was concerned the bill would have blocked the public’s ability to find information about potential environmental damage caused by large concentrated animal feeding operations, more commonly known as CAFOs.

“I just have this sense that somebody wants this bill for some reason, and it isn’t necessarily that they’re worried about their Social Security number or telephone number being disclosed,” Schaaf said.

A pair of amendments narrowed the bill to just voluntary programs. But that didn’t solve all the bill’s issues, said Tim Gibbons, communications director for the Missouri Rural Crisis Center, an advocacy group representing small farms.

“Our main problem is it shields what our government is doing with taxpayer dollars,” Gibbons said. “Grant and loan programs are voluntary. We should be able to see where taxpayer dollars are going.”

Rep. Jay Houghton, a Martinsburg Republican who sponsored the bill, told the House the main outcome of the legislation would be more farmers participating in voluntary programs.

“We have people who are reluctant to be involved in those programs because of the Sunshine Law,” he said.

A handful of bills include a provision blocking public access to police body and dashboard camera footage until an investigation is complete. Yet only video taken in public spaces would be public. Any footage taken in private places, such as a person’s home, would remain closed.

Just like with the agriculture bill, proponents said police departments would be more willing to use body cameras if they have some guidance as to how the footage must be disclosed.

Maassen said that in the past, some police departments have treated dashboard and body-camera footage as an open record while some have not.

“Now you will be able to get that footage once an investigation is inactive,” he said.

There were several other bills aimed at closing certain public records, ranging from the identities of lottery winners to police records on sexual assault and suicides. None of them won enough support to make their way to the governor’s desk.

Other bills sought to expand the state’s Sunshine Law, which is designed to cast light onto the workings of government.

Democrats pushed for bills that would have clarified that members of the Missouri House and Senate are governed by the Sunshine Law.

Currently, neither legislative chamber believes the law applies to individual representatives or senators. That means the public doesn’t have access to things such as communications between legislators and constituents, lobbyists or interest groups, along with other documents that may better reveal how lawmakers conducts themselves in office.

The Senate is facing a lawsuit by the liberal advocacy organization Progress Missouri over the fact that the group was regularly denied the right to film public committee hearings.

Jason Hancock: 573-634-3565, @J_Hancock