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Missouri House restricts access to its own records, votes down anti-discrimination protections

Missouri House restricts access to its own records, votes down anti-discrimination protections

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Missouri's 100th session convenes

State Rep. Elijah Haahr, R-Springfield, addresses the 100th assembly from the dais on Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019, after being elected speaker of the house in Missouri's 100th legislative session at the Jefferson City Capitol. Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com

JEFFERSON CITY • The Missouri House on Tuesday opted to allow House members to restrict access to public records, two months after voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment that subjects legislators to the state’s Sunshine Law.

The GOP-controlled chamber changed its rules Tuesday to allow lawmakers to keep confidential “constituent case files” and records relating to Democrats’ or Republicans’ “caucus strategy.”

The move came in the second week of the Legislature’s annual session as lawmakers debated changes to House policies.

The new rule defines a “constituent case file” as “any correspondence, written or electronic, between a member and a constituent, or between a member and any other party pertaining to a constituent’s grievance, a question of eligibility for any benefit as it relates to a particular constituent, or any issue regarding a constituent’s request for assistance.”

The move drew fire from Democrats, who said that the GOP had effectively usurped the will of the voters through a parliamentary maneuver. Missouri voters in November approved Amendment 1, better known as “Clean Missouri,” which, among other things, designates legislative emails as open records.

Sean Nicholson, Clean Missouri’s campaign manager, said the courts could ultimately decide whether the House rule runs counter to the state constitution.

“I think it would be pretty hard to justify ... in court and with constituents why they are trying to undo the will of the voters right after Amendment 1 passed in a landslide,” Nicholson said.

Rep. Nick Schroer, R-O’Fallon, said he was seeking to “protect” his constituents’ emails from disclosure. He said the media and others could exploit the new provision to air sensitive constituent communications that constituents may believe are confidential and were previously kept private.

“Basically what we are going to allow is discretion to each individual member to keep records confidential,” Schroer said. “I think that each individual member as the custodian of their own records, should have this right, should be able to determine what is confidential.”

Nicholson said the Sunshine Law already details several exemptions public entities can use to redact or close records; those provisions allow for the closure of personal information in certain cases.

Mark Pedroli, a private attorney leading an investigation into former Gov. Eric Greitens’ use of a text-message destroying smartphone app, called the move unconstitutional and added that his Sunshine Project organization is “on the case.”

“Missouri elected representatives are not high priests entitled to privileged communications w/ constituents,” Pedroli said on Twitter. “Amendment 1 is the Supreme law of the land, supreme to any rule or law passed by the legislature.”

Rep. Gina Mitten, D-Richmond Heights, scolded Republicans on the House floor.

“So here’s the deal, folks,” Mitten said. “Basically, a week ago tomorrow everybody in this room raised our hands and we swore to uphold the constitution. And whether the folks in this room like it or not, our constitution was amended in November.”

In other action, lawmakers voted down a proposal by Rep. Greg Razer, D-Kansas City, who wanted to add anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ House employees into the lower chamber’s rule manual.

“It’s almost 2020,” said Razer, who is openly gay. “Let’s not fire the gay guy, just because he’s gay.”

The Missouri Human Rights Act already forbids employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry, sex, disability and age — meaning legislators already cannot discriminate against their employees for those reasons.

But state law does not include protections for sexual orientation. Razer’s proposal would only have affected House rules, not state statute.

Rep. Curtis Trent, R-Springfield, said he worried people’s “religious liberty” would be encroached upon if the proposal were to take effect. He worried such changes invite litigation and would spur efforts to include protections for other groups in the law.

“This should be a question that’s answered by all of society and we should have a broad consensus before we move in any direction beyond where we’re at right now,” Trent said.

Rep. Mike Stephens, R-Bolivar, spoke in favor of the rule change.

“It is time now to step forward and eliminate that as an obstacle,” Stephens said. “These practices are a vestige of times that we believe are passing and changing.”

Razer’s measure was killed on a voice vote, meaning individual members’ stances were not recorded.

The legislation is House Resolution 7.

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