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New Law Forces Removal of Missouri Public Contracting Website

In an announcement posted on an Office of Administration's procurement website, officials say the new law is forcing them to remove contract award information from public access for privacy reasons.

Missouri Capitol_shutterstock_2132045141
(TNS) — Gov. Mike Parson's administration shut down access Monday to a website that allows Missourians to track who is winning potentially lucrative state contracts.

In an announcement posted on an Office of Administration's procurement website, officials say a new law is forcing them to remove contract award information from public access for privacy reasons.

The new law, which was signed by Parson, went into effect Sunday.

"Effective August 28, 2022, public access to the contract documents as well as the specific contact information for contractors will be removed from the MissouriBUYS Contract Board unless the law changes," the notice said.

The change means taxpayers seeking to determine how their money is being spent will have to file Sunshine Law requests for the information. But because all documents will need to be reviewed and then redacted, the office is warning of lengthy delays.

"Due to the anticipated volume of requests resulting from these measures taken to ensure compliance (with the law), requestor may experience an extensive wait time for document availability," the notice said.

Rep. Dan Houx, R- Warrensburg, was the original sponsor of House Bill 2400. The provisions affecting contracts was added in the Senate in the waning days of the spring session by Sen. Sandy Crawford, R- Buffalo.

Crawford could not be reached for comment Monday. Houx said the notice came as a surprise.

"That was definitely not the intent," Houx said Monday.

The new law is designed to shield nonprofits from having to disclose their donors to government agencies and allow for certain limited liability companies to contribute to candidates.

The so-called Personal Privacy Protection Act also closes any records or lists in the possession of a public agency containing the identity of supporters under Missouri's open records law and under court rules.

In approving the legislation, lawmakers said the law would protect people's privacy to donate to causes they support.

When it moved through the House and Senate in the spring, however, the Office of Administration, which oversees state purchasing, warned that the change would require them to review over 200,000 public bid and contract documents in its online database to ensure "personal information" of nonprofits is not disclosed.

"The Division of Purchasing would be forced to take down this website to avoid exposing a member's name," a fiscal analysis read. "This would also increase the number of Sunshine Law requests for records that are currently available online."

Typically, users can view the website to see who wins contracts for the products and programs used by the state. It ranges from the Missouri Department of Transportation buying asphalt to the Department of Health and Senior Services purchasing personal protective equipment.

Other agencies also cautioned against approval of House Bill 2400.

The Missouri Department of Revenue, for example, said it could be hindered in determining whether organizations owe state tax if they can't request personal information.

At the Missouri Department of Labor and Industrial Relations said the department may be out of compliance with federal requirements if a nonprofit stops submitting quarterly wage reports, putting the unemployment insurance program in jeopardy of losing federal funding.

It's not the first time Parson has tried to clamp down on public access to government records.

Earlier this year, he proposed changes to the Sunshine Law that would allow government agencies to withhold documents while also allowing them to charge more for the access.

©2022 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.