Donor privacy law changes would restore access to state contracts

A legislative fix to a donor privacy law blamed for impeding public access to state contract information is sitting on Gov. Mike Parson's desk.

The Personal Privacy Protection Act received bipartisan support on its way to being signed into law last year. The aim was to shield nonprofits from having to disclose their donors to government agencies.

But for months leading up to the law going into effect, state officials complained both publicly and privately about impacts it could have on key government functions -- from hampering the administration of certain tax credit programs to conflicting with existing laws regarding records of investigations by law enforcement agencies.

Those concerns culminated last August, when the Parson administration shut down immediate public access to state contracts, a major blow to government transparency. The governor's office later cited the law as justification for withholding information about a fundraiser at the governor's mansion.

Proponents of the original law cried foul, saying the problem wasn't with the law, but rather with an overly broad interpretation by the Parson administration. None of the 13 other states that passed similar laws had any of these issues, they argued.

But lawmakers vowed to make fixes to address the concerns of state agencies, and in the legislative session's final days included those changes in a sweeping bill originally focused on Highway Patrol records.

Chris Moreland, spokesman for the Office of Administration, which handles contracting and purchasing for the state, said his agency worked with lawmakers and nonprofit organizations to help find a compromise that would "allow the state to continue conducting business and partnering with nonprofits while maintaining protections around donor privacy."

If the governor signs the legislation, Moreland said, "the contracts website would be restored to its pre-Aug. 28, 2022, status, which would allow OA Purchasing to devote its limited staff resources to procurement rather than records requests."

The Personal Privacy Protection Act 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.

Other state agencies cited the law to justify withholding information from public records.

The legislation awaiting Parson's signature or veto states that personal information prohibited from being disclosed would not include information submitted for the purpose of seeking a contract or tax credit from the state.

It 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, among other provisions.

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