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Missouri lawmakers looking to alter state's Sunshine Law

by Ryan Pivoney | February 27, 2023 at 4:02 a.m.
The Missouri Capitol is shown in Jefferson City on May 13, 2022. (Photo by Tessa Weinberg/Missouri Independent)

State lawmakers are looking to dim Missouri's Sunshine Law this session.

Fifty years after it was adopted, the state's Republican-controlled Legislature is moving to weaken the Sunshine Law by limiting the amount of information it makes available through public record requests. The Senate has passed a bill out of committee while the House has yet to hold a hearing on its legislation.

Proponents say the bills are necessary to limit excessive and vague record requests while opponents say it's a move by the government to restrict public information.

With the adoption of the Sunshine Law in 1973, Missouri became one of the earliest states to open all levels of government meetings and records to the public. The law makes available meetings, records, votes, actions and deliberations of public entities, unless such meetings or actions are closed for reasons specified by statute.

SB 174, sponsored by Sen. Andrew Koenig, R-Manchester, would change the definitions of "closed record," "public business," "public meeting," and "public record" as they relate to the Sunshine Law, as well as repeal requirements that public bodies keep internal communication records and make them available as a "public record."

Additionally, the bill would extend the timeframe a government agency has to respond to record requests and allow public entities to close records and meetings related to: nonjudicial mental or physical health proceedings, security measures and emergency response plans, information provided to school safety tip lines, information recorded in suspicious activity reports, individually identifiable constituent information and contact information submitted to government subscription services.

"I don't think there's a public purpose in disclosing that," Koenig said when presenting his bill to the Senate Governmental Accountability Committee Feb. 9. "Most people who want to sign up for newsletters are just trying to communicate with government. They're not expecting their emails to be 'sunshineable.'"

Koenig described the Sunshine Law as a "great tool" for Missourians to know how their government operates but said he was moved to file the legislation by "abuses over the years that go beyond its original intent."

He said the law has been used to ask for overly large requests, access sensitive data and publish private addresses and contact information.

Koenig's original bill included "transitory records" in those the government could keep closed. That language was removed from the bill substitute the Senate committee passed Thursday, sending it to the Senate floor.

Missouri Municipal League, the Municipal League of Metro St. Louis, Missouri School Boards' Association and Missouri Highway Patrol testified in favor of the bill while groups such as the Missouri Press Association, Missouri Broadcasters Association and Missouri Sunshine Coalition stood against it.

The Missouri Press Association considers Koenig's bill to be "high on the list of concerns," according to the Feb. 10 Legislative Update posted to its website.

Representatives from the Missouri Press Association met with Koenig after the hearing and said they expect more changes to be made to the bill.

Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, said he generally thinks the Sunshine Law doesn't need to be limited but he's interested in protecting personally identifiable information from requests.

"I'm fine with the right information being out there," he said. "Certainly, I'm not interested in and won't help folks not be able to see our process in any substantive way."

Rowden said he wasn't familiar with the specific language in SB 174 but "if it's something I think is arbitrarily or unnecessarily limiting, then it's probably not something I'm going to be able to support."

"I think there's a limit to what needs to be out there, but I also don't want to do anything to make this place darker than it is, that's certainly not my intent," he said.

Gov. Mike Parson told a gathering of Missouri journalists Thursday that he would like to see some legislation on the Sunshine Law because he thinks it is being abused.

"For the most part, I don't think people try to hide behind the Sunshine Law..." he said. "I think we want to be open, I think we should be open. But the reality of it, there's no question the Sunshine Law's being abused every day."

The Republican governor pointed to a request his office received asking for all records containing the word "COVID." He said those kinds of requests are too cumbersome to fulfill but are often what his office gets.

"Things of that nature are not what the Sunshine Law was for," he said.

Parson said lawmakers should be meeting with representatives of the news media to determine what is realistic of the Sunshine Law.

HB 394, sponsored by Rep. Bill Falkner, R-St. Joseph, is the House companion piece to Koenig's Senate legislation. The bill mirrors Koenig's original language but hasn't been assigned to a committee. Other House bills related to the Sunshine Law have yet to be assigned as well.

House Speaker Dean Plocher, R-St. Louis, didn't comment on the legislation working through the General Assembly but said he generally supports a transparent government, within reason.

"I want transparency. I want you all to have access to reasonable things so you should report what's going on because we're all public servants here. We don't want to hide stuff," Plocher told members of the Missouri Press Association Thursday. "But at the same time, it needs to have a rational basis for disclosure and not be incredibly intrusive to have to reveal crazy stuff, whatever-- I don't know what that might be."

He said he doesn't want to restrict the ability of reporters covering governments in Missouri, and he was looking forward to seeing what comes out of House committees.

Print Headline: State lawmakers looking to alter Sunshine Law


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