Missouri lawmakers seek to remedy concerns with donor privacy law

The Personal Privacy Protection Act, enacted last year, has been cited as the reason for Missouri to shut off immediate public access to state contracts

By: - February 27, 2023 1:54 pm

Rep. Ben Baker, R-Neosho, speaks during House debate on May 13, 2022 (Tim Bommel/Missouri House Communications).

A Missouri House committee on Monday debated a pair of bills seeking to fix issues with a donor privacy law that critics argue have undermined key activities of certain government agencies. 

The bills — sponsored by Republican state Reps. Sean Pouche of Kansas City and Ben Baker of Neosho — seek to address concerns raised by Gov. Mike Parson’s administration about the Personal Privacy Protection Act, which was approved last year with bipartisan support. 

Among those concerns: That the law forced the state to shut down immediate public access to state contracts, is hampering the administration of certain tax credit programs, and conflicts with previously existing laws regarding records of investigations by law enforcement agencies.

“There are some differences between what was intended with (the Personal Privacy Protection Act) and what the law actually says,” said Hannah Swan, who testified on behalf of the Missouri Office of Administration on Monday afternoon before the House Special Committee on Government Accountability.

Proponents of the original law, however, say the problem isn’t with its language but rather with an overly broad interpretation by the Parson administration. 

“A number of states have passed similar laws,” Jeremy Cady, state director for Americans for Prosperity, said Monday. “We haven’t seen these issues in other states. So we’re not entirely sure why this has become as much of an issue as it has been.”

Pitched as a necessary protection to protect people’s privacy to donate to nonprofit organizations, the Personal Privacy Protection Act received bipartisan support on its way to being signed into law last year by Parson. 

Along the way, Parson’s administration began raising concerns — both publicly and privately.

Donor privacy law being used by Missouri agencies to conceal public records

The law includes language prohibiting government agencies from releasing, publicizing or otherwise publicly disclosing any information that “identifies a person as a member, supporter, or volunteer of or donor” to a nonprofit organization. 

The Department of Public Safety warned the law could undermine efforts to work with nonprofit partners and could conflict with existing laws regarding records of investigations by law enforcement agencies. It could also, the department warned, hinder prosecution of certain unlawful activity.

The Department of Revenue worried the law would negatively impact the agency’s ability to administer tax credit programs and could interfere with reviewing or auditing withholding and income tax obligations of 501(c) nonprofit organizations.

The Office of Administration — the agency that handles state contracting — pointed to concerns that the law would require it to limit public access to contracts that were, at the time, available on a state transparency portal. That concern eventually led the state to shut down public access to a state contracting portal. 

Other state agencies — including the governor’s office — have also cited the new law to justify withholding information from public records

Swan said the law defines personal information too broadly.

“Our goal is to create some exemptions to allow the state to conduct business,” she said. “We’re not trying to collect donor lists, we just want to be able to conduct business.”

Both Baker and Pouche’s bills try to alleviate some of the administration’s concerns by making it clear that personal information that would be prohibited from being disclosed would not include information submitted for the purpose of seeking a contract or tax credit from the state. 

The bills also specifies that information shared among law enforcement as part of an investigation would not be covered by the prohibition, nor would information provided voluntarily at a public meeting. 

When the Personal Privacy Protection Act passed last year, it won support from an  ideologically diverse group, including the ACLU of Missouri, Americans for Prosperity and People United for Privacy — all of which have 501(c)(4) arms, an Internal Revenue designation that allows them to participate in political activity without having to disclose their donors.

Proponents pointed to a law in California struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court that mandated nonprofits disclose large donors as a reason to take action.  

The Missouri Independent is an affiliate of States Newsroom, a 501(c)3 nonprofit that discloses its donors.

“Fourteen states have passed this legislation, including five neighboring states of ours,” Baker said. “Privacy is a right that is a shared value by all Americans.”

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Jason Hancock
Jason Hancock

Jason Hancock has spent two decades covering politics and policy for news organizations across the Midwest, with most of that time focused on the Missouri statehouse as a reporter for The Kansas City Star. A three-time National Headliner Award winner, he helped launch The Missouri Independent in October 2020.