State Auditor Nicole Galloway today praised the Missouri General Assembly for passing several of her legislative priorities during the regular session that ended May 18.
Early in session, Auditor Galloway identified several priorities, including requiring the state to pay taxpayers the same interest rate on late tax refunds as the rate the state charges taxpayers for filing late; providing Missouri parents the right to know when their children's personal information is subject to a school cybersecurity data breach; restoring protections to government whistleblowers; and prohibiting the use of non-disclosure agreements in settlements and judgments paid by the taxpayer-funded Legal Expense Fund.
"Legislators from both sides of the aisle recognized how these bills would benefit Missourians by putting more money in their wallets, protecting their sensitive information, and making government more accountable," Auditor Galloway said. "I'm proud of the bipartisan efforts that have resulted in the passage of eight legislative priorities during my three years in office."
Creating an equal playing field for taxpayers
Auditor Galloway highlighted the interest rate disparity in January when she released an audit of the timeliness of tax refunds by the Department of Revenue and then called for a legislative fix to the problem. The just-passed legislation requires the state to pay taxpayers the same interest rate charged on late payments from taxpayers. For the 2016 tax year, late filers paid a four percent interest rate, while the state only paid 0.7 percent for late refunds.
"We uncovered several problems the Department of Revenue had in getting taxpayers their money in a timely manner, but the disparity in how much taxpayers received in interest for late refunds compared to what they were charged for late payments really jumped out," Auditor Galloway said. "There's no reason for the state of Missouri to not be held to the same standard of accountability as taxpayers. The General Assembly did the right thing in correcting this inequity."
Representative Lauren Arthur filed legislation to correct the inequity.
"Hardworking Missourians are required to pay interest if they file their taxes after the deadline," said Rep. Arthur. "It is only fair that we demand the same accountability from our state government."
Protecting children's personal information
Passage of the school cybersecurity bill comes after the Auditor completed five school district audits focused on cybersecurity and went to 12 Missouri schools to recognize districts that had proactively implemented parental notification policies when student data was compromised. Those districts were leading the way in protecting sensitive data, Galloway said, and she had encouraged legislators to pass a bill giving parents of students statewide the same right of notification. Senator Gina Walsh filed the legislation to provide parental notification.
"For the first time ever, parents across Missouri will have the right to know when there are cybersecurity breaches at their schools so they can take any necessary actions," Auditor Galloway said. "Our public schools are entrusted with data from students and their families and like any sensitive information, it must be safeguarded. This is a vital step forward in cybersecurity protection for hundreds of thousands of Missouri families."
“Cybersecurity laws are incredibly important to keeping children and families safe, and I greatly appreciate Auditor Galloway’s leadership in championing this issue,” Sen. Walsh said. “Under this legislation, schools will now let parents know right away if their students’ data is ever compromised. This is a good, bipartisan bill that protects children and families from identity theft.”
Restoring whistleblower protections and prohibiting NDAs
When the Governor signed Senate Bill 43 in 2017 over the objections of Auditor Galloway, the new law negated long-standing whistleblower protections for government employees who reported waste, fraud and misuse of taxpayer resources. Since that time, Galloway has pushed for restoration of those protections, which she said are vital to uncovering wrongdoing by government agencies. The whistleblower protections were restored this year.
Another key provision included in the new legislation, also supported by the Auditor, prohibits the use of non-disclosure agreements, or NDAs, in settlements or judgments that state government agencies pay from the Legal Expense Fund. NDAs prevent public discussion of claims settled against the government and also can hide long-term, festering problems that often result in more lawsuits and greater costs to taxpayers, Galloway said.
"I have long opposed the use of NDAs in settlements by the state, because they can allow details of improper -- or even illegal -- activity by government agencies to remain shrouded in secrecy," Auditor Galloway said. "When my recent audit showed Missouri taxpayers were on the hook for more than $115 million in legal settlements and judgments, it certainly caught the attention of legislators. I appreciate their restoring whistleblower protections and eliminating NDAs to make government more accountable."
Bills containing the whistleblower and NDA provisions were filed by Sen. Jill Schupp and Rep. Gail McCann Beatty, who also amended other legislation to include the provision.
“Anyone who blows the whistle on corruption or waste in government should be applauded, not punished,” Sen. Schupp said. “This policy will protect government whistleblowers and hold public officials accountable. Auditor Galloway has been a leader on this issue and I appreciate being able to work with her to restore and strengthen the whistleblower protections that were removed last year through bad legislation pushed by misguided politicians.”
"In an effort to clean up corruption and restore public trust in Missouri government, I believe there is no better time than now to provide government employees with secure protections when it comes to revealing the misconduct and misuse of taxpayer dollars," Rep. McCann Beatty said. "In order to do so, we must increase transparency, and Auditor Galloway's whistleblower language is a sound solution to rectifying this issue."