Originally published by Ray Hartmann in the River Front Times on February 13, 2019
Just a week in advance of Valentine’s Day, the Missouri House of Representatives sent the following greeting of love to the citizens of the state: “Take your good-government tripe and shove it.”
Your public servants in Jefferson City wasted no time in correcting the voters’ presumptuous idea that they could use the ballot box to reform state government.
As you might recall, Missourians voted last November in favor of Constitutional Amendment 1, nicknamed Clean Missouri. It wasn’t a close call. The victory margin was 62 to 38 percent. In some circles, that would constitute a mandate.
Not in your state capitol, where “mandate” sounds too damn much like something those homosexuals do. And “transparency”? Don’t even go there.
No, it turns out that thoughtful legislators needed to explain to the citizens that they didn’t really mean to vote the way they did.
So, here’s what the House of Representatives decided to do: First they took the good-government provisions of Amendment 1 and extended them to local officials, school districts and the like throughout the state, a reasonable thing.
But then, in an act of astonishing arrogance, they used the cover of that bill to push through amendments that fundamentally destroy the state’s Sunshine Law as it applies to the legislature itself. And by using the amendment route, they were able to pull it off without so much as a single public hearing on their malfeasance.
This is not subtle stuff. Here is the last line in Amendment 1, the one to which 1,469,093 Missourians said “yes”:
“The amendment further requires all legislative records and proceedings to be subject to the state open meetings and records law (Missouri Sunshine Law).”
Now consider what will be newly exempt from the Sunshine Law, thanks to a modification slipped in by way of amendment to Thursday’s bill by Rep. Nick Schroer (R-O’Fallon): “any correspondence, written or electronic, between a member of a public governmental body and a constituent pertaining to a constituent’s request for information.” Schroer’s amendment would also exempt any document or record “received or prepared by or on behalf of a member of a public governmental body consisting of advice, opinions and recommendations in connection with the deliberative decision-making process of said body.”
In other words, pretty much any communication with a state legislator would become none of the public’s business, unless that legislator thinks so. That’s an outrageous notion, even for a state legislature traditionally known to regard ethics as a contagious disease. But to have it come on the heels of a constitutional amendment to the contrary, passed with a victory margin of 569,480 votes, is actually fairly spectacular.
It should be noted that this isn’t the first salvo fired back by the legislators at those annoying voters. The new House had barely settled into session when it changed its rules to keep confidential “constituent case files and records relating to Democrats’ or Republicans’ ‘caucus strategy,’” according to the Post-Dispatch.
Understand that this is just the beginning of what appears to be a war on “Clean Missouri,” a full package of reforms aimed at fixing things in Jeff City. The sentence requiring legislative compliance with the state Sunshine Law wasn’t nearly as controversial as the language compelling a new redistricting process or the new restrictions it put on campaign donations and lobbyist gifts. I have a sneaking feeling that many more “corrections” will be coming from the state legislature to the reforms enacted by the people in November.
This isn’t altogether unprecedented. Previous legislatures have acted to overturn the stated will of the people after public initiatives on gun control, puppy mills, minimum wage and the like. But the hubris in this one is unique. The legislators themselves were the specific target of what they’re trying to overturn in this case. When Rep. Jon Carpenter (D-Kansas City), explains his opposition to Schroer’s bill by saying that, under the new provisions, “We’re not going to have to turn over virtually anything,” that should get your attention.
The message from Jefferson City’s political class is quite clear: “Yes, we understand you people want good government. But we like bad government. You goody two-shoes types can pass all the ballot items you want. We’re here, we’re voting after you and we get the last word. So, get over it.”
The lawmakers’ fig leaf for exempting themselves from the Sunshine Law is that poor, innocent citizens will have their lives ruined by the publication of their social security and cell phone numbers — and, God forbid, their opinions on state issues — by the prying villains of the media, lawyers making Sunshine Law requests and others.
What a joke. The Sunshine Law already allows for redaction of private information. Tweaks to reflect the digital age would be one thing, but this feigned concerned about the poor average citizen is too much to bear. In case it hadn’t occurred to you, if you communicate with a public official on that official’s public email account, you really aren’t entitled to what’s known as “a reasonable expectation of privacy.” That’s why they’re called “public” officials, right?
Here’s one more radical suggestion: How about giving daylight a chance? If, in the coming year, we find that the voters have unleashed horrific unintended consequences upon themselves, we can deal with it then.
The state’s Sunshine Law has been around almost half a century. It was a signature achievement of a Republican governor named Kit Bond — working with an overwhelmingly Democratic legislature in 1973 — and as a Watergate-era reform, it was a universally feel-good thing.
Admittedly, the world’s changed a lot since then, and it’s true we have a president whose activities past and present make look Watergate look like a high school prank in comparison.
But how has it come to pass that we have a state legislature actively working to reverse a public initiative that, among other things, cries out for more openness and accountability? There’s some irony that Bond’s pride and joy is being undone by Republicans, but it should be noted that this wasn’t a strict party-line vote. Some Democrats were on board for this nonsense, too, and some Republicans said no.
One can make a case that too many matters are decided these days — from the right and the left — by way of the initiative process in states like Missouri. It’s not the ideal way to run a government.
But as long as the general assembly is so blatantly unaccountable, it’s not hard to see why people from all parts of the political spectrum see it as an obstacle, not a place to solve problems.
It just ain’t clean.