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Last day of legislative session

Rep. Wanda Brown (far right) reaches to grab more paper as members of the House of Representatives toss paper in the air after the conclusion of the last day of Missouri legislative session on Friday, May 15, 2015. It's a longstanding tradition at the end of session. Photo by Cristina M. Fletes, cfletes@post-dispatch.com

JEFFERSON CITY • Long shrouded in secrecy, records kept by Missouri lawmakers will soon be open to public scrutiny as part of a ballot initiative approved by wide margins across the state Nov. 6.

As part of the “Clean Missouri” proposal, which called for an overhaul of ethics laws and changes to the way the state’s political maps are drawn, members of the House and Senate will no longer be able to claim they are exempt from the Sunshine Law.

The change, scheduled to go into effect Dec. 6, could give taxpayers a glimpse of the kinds of pressure lawmakers are under when they are facing votes on various issues. It could reveal how much time they are spending with lobbyists. And, it could show what types of services elected officials are providing to their constituents.

Leaders in the House and Senate are in the process of reviewing the new requirement to ensure the nearly 200 members of the House and Senate comply.

“We’re going to try and be as open as possible,” said Heidi Kolkmeyer, chief of staff to outgoing Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard, R-Joplin.

In the House, officials have already held one meeting to discuss the repercussions of the Clean Missouri vote and are scheduled for more sessions in the lead-up to the effective date.

The change is one provision of the constitutional amendment approved by voters by a vote of 62 percent to 38 percent.

The amendment will limit the value of lobbyist gifts to state lawmakers to no more than $5 and require Missouri politicians to wait at least two years before becoming lobbyists. It also lowers the $2,600 campaign contribution limit for state legislative candidates to $2,500.

The measure, which won approval in more than 80 of the state’s counties, also makes lawmaker records subject to the state’s Sunshine Law.

For now, the measure is set to go into effect Dec. 6, but opposition to another provision affecting the way Missouri draws its legislative maps has generated threats of lawsuits.

The same groups of opponents who tried to boot the so-called “Clean Missouri” initiative off the ballot earlier this year over its redistricting provisions say they are mulling further legal action aimed at stopping the reforms.

Under Missouri’s 45-year-old Sunshine Law, members of the public can request records from any “public governmental body.”

Lawmakers, however, have exempted themselves from the law, arguing that the records of the House and Senate bodies are subject to the law but not those of individual lawmakers.

In recent years, official audits of the House and Senate have raised red flags about the way records are retained. Then- Auditor Tom Schweich, a Republican, said it was a double standard for the legislative branch to approve laws requiring other public bodies to be open, but then exempt themselves from those same requirements.

Missouri has not been alone in lawmakers’ keeping a tight hold on their documents.

In 2016, the Associated Press submitted open-records requests to the top legislative leaders in all 50 states, seeking copies of their daily schedules and emails from their government accounts. Most denied the requests, often citing exemptions from the open-records laws that apply to most state executive agencies and local governments.

Among the most vocal critics of the Clean Missouri changes was Rep. Kathie Conway, R-St. Charles. She and others argued that she might have to turn over emails containing personal details from constituents.

“I’m just concerned about people’s private problems. I did receive emails from people about their son on the sex offender register or their daughter being on welfare. It concerns me that that could become public record,” Conway told the Post-Dispatch.

Although she acknowledged there would be a process for redacting some information from records, she said that was not clear in the language of the amendment.

“I think Clean Missouri was kind of vague. It didn’t really spell it out,” Conway said. “I just thought it was fraught with pitfalls.”

Richard echoed a similar concern in 2016.

“What happens if you have an email talking about child abuse and family issues and the fact that you’re trying to help somebody?” Richard said.

In response, Clean Missouri proponents said other elected officials, including the governor and other statewide officers, had already been complying with the law for more than four decades.

Under the Missouri Sunshine Law, the fact that some emails may contain sensitive information is not a reason for denying access to all emails. Rather, the law lets particular records — such as those dealing with welfare cases or mental and physical health proceedings — be redacted or withheld while the rest are released.

Once implemented, House and Senate officials say lawmakers and their aides will probably need training on the Sunshine Law. That might not come before the Dec. 6 launching, said Kolkmeyer.

Other details of how the law will apply remain unclear.

For example, no one knows whether a request for records that existed prior to Dec. 6 would need to be fulfilled. Kolkmeyer said it might depend on whether the senator or representative retained those records.

“Each request is going to be on an individual, case-by-case basis,” Kolkmeyer said.

Kurt Erickson is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch