Originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on February 7, 2019
The Missouri House on Thursday approved a measure that would severely curtail the state’s open records law, though Senate leaders signaled that they would tighten the proposal’s sweeping provisions.
The measure generated heated debate this week, with Democrats and open-records advocates arguing that the broad exemptions outlined would gut the state’s Sunshine Law.
The changes would exempt from disclosure records of “advice, opinions and recommendations” that any member of a “public governmental body” receives or prepares.
Proponents said they were concerned about protecting their constituents’ privacy and contended they had nothing to hide.
The passage came three months after the statewide vote that approved Amendment 1, known as Clean Missouri, which subjects lawmakers to the Sunshine Law.
The changes exempt personal cellphone numbers, Social Security numbers and home addresses from disclosure, although Social Security numbers are already exempt from disclosure under the Sunshine Law. (There is some debate over whether the Social Security number exemption applies to legislative records.)
The most controversial changes, however, exempt records “received or prepared by or on behalf of a member of a public governmental body” that consist of “advice, opinions and recommendations in connection with the deliberative decision-making process of said body.”
The measure would also exempt “constituent case files,” which include “any correspondence, written or electronic, between a member of a public governmental body and a constituent pertaining to a constituent’s request for information or assistance.”
The changes would affect local government officials, the Legislature and state officials.
Lawmakers added the Sunshine Law changes as an amendment to a bill that forbids most lobbyist gifts to local elected officials. The House also added language to that legislation that would ban elected officials from using software such as Confide, which deletes text messages after they’ve been read.
The vote on the underlying ethics legislation was 103 to 47, with several Republicans voting “no” and some Democrats casting “yes” votes.
Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, said the Senate would likely edit the House’s proposed Sunshine Law changes.
“This is a multistep process for a reason,” Rowden said. “They took the action they thought was necessary. We’re going to take a look at it.”
He said the Senate would take steps “we feel are necessary for the privacy of our constituents” but said lawmakers should not make the exemptions “too broad,” which could result in “upending what the voters told us last November.”
Rep. Shamed Dogan, R-Ballwin, the sponsor of the underlying ethics bill, also said that he would push the Senate to revise the Sunshine provisions.
Gov. Mike Parson’s office said in a statement that the office was monitoring the legislation. As did Attorney General Eric Schmitt’s office, which enforces the Sunshine Law.
“The Governor has demonstrated his commitment to an open and transparent government and is a longtime supporter of the Sunshine Law,” the governor’s office said. “Our office will continue to monitor all legislative proposals as they evolve through the legislative process.”
The legislation is House Bill 445.