An email from a state division director asking customers to advocate for the agency’s budget raised eyebrows among business owners and legislators.
The Corporation Division of the Secretary of State’s Office is seeking a roughly $2.6 million increase to its existing $15 million budget over the next two years to hire more staff and digitize millions of public records that now only exist on degrading microfilms. The division’s request comes as legislative budget writers urge agencies to trim their budgets, keeping open positions vacant and spending less amid economic uncertainty.
After presenting the division’s budget request to a legislative subcommittee last week, Corporation Division Director Eloisa Miller emailed everyone who has registered a business in Oregon asking them to submit written testimony supporting the request.
“Yesterday I went to the state Legislature and asked them to invest in a new vision for the division,” Miller wrote in the email, addressed to “Valued Customers.”
“Imagine a division that operates at the speed of business,” she continued. “One where technology and automation allow you to access the information you need from anywhere using a cellphone or laptop at your convenience. Imagine faster response times through online, on demand access to the services we provide. Imagine doing business in the language you’re comfortable with. These things are all possible if legislators approve our agency budget request.”
The message worked – by Friday afternoon, 69 people had submitted written testimony in support of the office’s budget request, mostly referring to funding for the corporation division. That’s more than almost every other agency funding bill.
But other business owners, including gymnastics club owner Leslie French, were skeptical of the email they received.
“I do not believe the director of the division should be using state resources such as the email that I received on behalf of my business politicking for a ‘yes’ vote to approve the bill,” French wrote. “I believe this is a violation of state ethics rules and of expenditure policy.”
Mass emails asking Oregonians to weigh in on legislation are a normal part of the legislative process. Lawmakers and interest groups regularly ask people to submit testimony for bills they support or oppose and sometimes provide form letters to copy and paste.
The difference with the corporation division request, said Sen. Brian Boquist, an independent from Dallas, is that business owners didn’t sign up to receive those emails. They shared their email addresses and other personal information with the corporation division because they needed to do so to register or renew business filings and expected that information to remain confidential, said Boquist, who received the email because he’s involved in several businesses.
“It’s not OK to use that confidential information,” he said.
Boquist contacted the Oregon Government Ethics Commission, which enforces state laws on lobbying, open meetings and other ethics issues. Susan Myers, the commission’s compliance and education coordinator, told him that the email qualified as lobbying, but it wasn’t illegal.
Under state law, government employees can lobby on behalf of their agencies, and they don’t have to register as lobbyists unless they spend more than 24 hours or $100 during any three-month period.
Ben Morris, a spokesman for the Secretary of State’s office who responded to questions on Miller’s behalf, said in an email that he’s unaware of the division sending similar requests in the past. Business owners tell the division almost every day about their frustrations with the division’s customer service, he said.
“That feedback is valuable, and we believe legislators should hear it,” Morris said. “So we decided to provide our customers with an easy way to submit their feedback directly to legislators.”
He added that legislators don’t normally receive much public testimony on agency budget requests, and that they should hear directly from people affected by their decisions.
Rep. Greg Smith, a Heppner Republican and co-chair of the legislative subcommittee reviewing the office’s budget request, told the Capital Chronicle it made sense for the Secretary of State’s Office to ask business owners to contact legislators, and that he wanted to hear from the people who use the business filing system.
“I didn’t feel lobbied,” Smith said.
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