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Sunspots on the Sunshine Bill

May 08, 2000
By: Clayton Bellamy
State Capital Bureau
Links: SB 858

JEFFERSON CITY - The Missouri House Monday added a laundry list of amendments to the newspaper and broadcast industry's attempt to strengthen the state's open records law.

By a roll-call vote of 133-2, the House approved an increase in the fine for Sunshine Law violations, lowered the burden of proof prosecutors face when enforcing the law, and expanded exemptions for publically-funded hospitals.

Maxwell's original bill called for hiking the current $500 fine to $25,000. The Senate, which has already passed the bill, reduced that to $2,500, a total held steady Monday in the House.

Fines are currently levied only if the perpetrator "purposely" ignores the law. The bill's new threshold is "knowingly," though the original House version sought to remove the designation altogether.

Maxwell said "purposely" requires prosecutors to prove the perpetrator intended to break the law, whereas "knowingly" requires only the violator was aware of the law.

The House also added language keeping some public hospital records hidden, specifically those associated with the hospital's business plans.

The bill's House handler, Rep. Phil Smith, D-Louisiana, said making those records available gives private hospitals competitive advantages over public ones because they can access those hospital's strategic plans.

Adding to the maelstrom of amendments, Rep. Vicki Wilson, D-Columbia, offered a plan to allow adult adoptees access to their birth certificates. The amendment was killed 98-30 amid debate about the secrecy rights of the parents.

In a bizarre move, Rep. Chuck Pryor, R-Versailles, introduced an amendment establishing a "truth squad" to assess the accuracy of news reports. If the squad determined a report to be false, the news organization would be fined $5,000 and would lose office and parking space at the Capitol.

"If we should have free and open information from public boards, then we ought to get assurances that the media report it right," Pryor said.

Although the amendment was intended as a joke, nine members supported it in a roll-call vote.

The House also voted to unequivocally place the University of Missouri system under the state's Sunshine Law.

By voice vote, the House added language saying, "including, but not limited to, the University of Missouri" to the law's section that opens meetings of colleges and universities. The university is the only institution explicitly named.

The controversy stems from a 1998 comment a university system official made to the Kansas City Star, implying the university is exempt from the statute.

The university's lobbyist, Jim Snider, said the comment was taken out of context and no one can deny the university board of curators' meetings are open. He is concerned, however, the new amendment may someday be interpreted by courts as including lesser events like faculty meetings.

In other legislative action: