Barely two months after Missouri voters said, loudly and clearly, that state legislators’ official records must be open to the public, the Missouri House on Tuesday effectively overturned that vote and declared that members can keep their records closed. Lawmakers have done this before, on other issues. What part of “will of the people” don’t they understand?
Proponents of the “Clean Missouri” constitutional amendment that voters passed in November — and which the House has now thumbed its nose at — should get this in front of a judge as soon as possible.
The state’s voters last year overwhelmingly passed ballot measures on organized labor, the minimum wage, medical marijuana and government ethics, each in defiance of the Republicans who control the state government. The measure known as “Clean Missouri” addressed political reform in areas of redistricting, lobbyist restrictions and freedom of information.
The measure, approved by more than 60 percent of voters, changed the state Constitution to subject legislators to the state’s Sunshine Law, from which they were previously exempted. The voters said, in essence, that legislators’ official records, like those of other public bodies, must be available for public inspection, with specified exceptions for issues like privacy.
But as the Post-Dispatch’s Jack Suntrup reported, House rules approved Tuesday give individual representatives the option to withhold records regarding party strategy and correspondence with constituents. Because the measure related to House rules, it doesn’t have to go to the Senate or the governor to go into effect.
Proponents claim it’s a matter of protecting constituent privacy — a reliable red herring for politicians who want to prevent the public from seeing public records. The state’s Sunshine Law already contains protections for private information, and they know it. The “privacy” excuse is just that: an excuse, for legislators to decide unilaterally which of their public records the public can and cannot see.
Under democratic governance, that’s not how it works. The law determines what records are open, and the law in this case is clear. The House has simply decided to exempt itself from that law, even after a wide majority of voters specifically stripped it of that power and mandated greater transparency.
Voter-approved constitutional amendments aren’t suggestions; they are the law. Yet legislators have, over the years, blithely undone the will of the voters again and again, on issues including campaign limits, guns, casinos and the state’s infamous “puppy mill” industry. Each time they do it, the arrogance of it almost looks like lawmakers are trying to show the voters who’s boss.
The courts need to show those lawmakers who’s boss — and it isn’t them. If our voting process means anything, this rule change needs to be declared unconstitutional as soon as possible, in strong enough terms to make legislators think twice the next time they’re tempted to overturn an election.
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