Jefferson City – Last November, Missouri voters overwhelmingly passed Clean Missouri, a constitutional amendment to clean-up Missouri politics by, among other things, extending the state’s open records laws to the State Legislature. Voters approved the measure with 62 percent vote.
But Republicans in the state legislature are working to gut the new transparency law and make their already opaque dealings with donors completely dark.
The Republican-controlled House of Representatives on Feb. 7 passed HB 445 on 103 to 47 vote, severely limiting the kinds of documents that can be requested under Missouri’s open records or “Sunshine Law.”
HB 445 was originally written to strengthen ethics rules for local government officials, and enjoyed wide bipartisan support, but was amended to eviscerate Missouri’s open records law.
The original bill would have imposed a two-year waiting period on local officials becoming lobbyists and capped gifts from lobbyists to local officials at $5 – requirements established in the Clean Missouri amendment overwhelmingly approved by voters.
But state Rep. Nick Schroer (R-O’Fallon) added an amendment to broadly expand statutory exemptions that allow certain records to be withheld under the Sunshine Law. Under the amendment, government officials would have legal authority to keep virtually everything secret.
‘A HUGE STEP BACKWARDS’
GOP lawmakers say they are only trying to protect the personal information of constituents, whose names and information might be included in emails to their representatives. But the bill goes a lot further than that, and would exempt from disclosure any records of “advice, opinions and recommendations” that any member of a “public governmental body” receives or prepares.
The changes would apply not only to the Legislature but to city councils, school boards, planning and zoning commissions, and even police departments.
“Every elected official from school board member to governor will be able to hide any communication they have with anyone,” said State Representative Doug Beck (D-Affton), a member of Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 562.
For example, Beck says: A lawmaker could receive an email from donor suggesting the lawmaker vote a certain way –– for instance, to vote for a new “right-to-work” measure or support further restrictions to Prevailing Wage or Project Labor Agreements. The donor might remind the lawmaker of the donor’s numerous cash donations, and the lawmaker, within the email, could agree to vote the way the donor wants.
“This is what a lot people call ‘pay-to-play’ and there would be no way for the public to see this information,” Beck said. “This bill would almost encourage corruption and would be a huge step backwards in the area of transparency.”
Following a week of heated debate on the changes in the House, Senate Republicans signaled they will likely modify the Sunshine exclusions. It’s unclear, however, what that will look like.
Sandy Davidson, a professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and a Curators’ Teaching Professor at the University of Missouri, called the proposed changes in the House bill “dreadful.”
“It could shut off the ability of journalists, who are performing a ‘watchdog function,’ or of any other interested person to see what information our lawmakers are using when doing their deliberating,” Davidson said. “The proposal would make communications between public officials at all levels of government and their constituents largely immune to records requests.”
The amendment is a radical change from current Missouri Sunshine Law and its presumption of openness, Davidson said.
“If the public can’t even find out what information or misinformation a governmental decision-maker has received, how can the public respond?”