Courtesy of David Thalberg
Courtesy of David Thalberg
SALEM — The day after Oregon’s primary election, Gov. Kate Brown stepped up to the podium at the opening of a software company’s new office in northwest Portland.
The company, Vitu, operates an electronic vehicle titling and registration system in California and last year won a state contract to expand into Oregon. That was exciting news for Brown, who joined executives from Vitu’s parent company Motor Vehicle Software Corporation to celebrate the office opening.
“I am so pleased to be here today to help open Vitu here in the city of Portland,” Brown said. “Their very innovative tools to modernize vehicle registration, I think, will be an essential service for Oregonians throughout the state.”
For the Motor Vehicle Software Corporation, the governor’s attendance at the office opening followed two years of investments in lobbying and political contributions in Oregon.
The Motor Vehicle Software Corporation reported spending $108,000 on lobbying in Oregon from 2014 through March, and contributed $107,500 to local and state politicians’ campaigns since 2013. This included $20,000 in contributions to Brown’s campaign, with the latest contribution in early May, according to state campaign finance records.
The combination of spending on lobbying and campaign contributions is common practice for many companies and interest groups in Oregon, which has no limits on the size of political contributions and expenditures. However, it is difficult for the public to track the connection because the state uses separate systems to record political campaign and lobbying spending. The state also does not require lobbyists to disclose if they play a role in raising political donations.
As for the Motor Vehicle Software Corporation’s spending, it is dwarfed by the millions invested by the state’s top lobbying and political spenders.
For example, the Oregon Nurses Association reported spending $2.3 million to lobby lawmakers and other state officials from 2007 through 2015. It was the second largest amount spent on lobbying by any private sector group during that time period, according to analysis of state records by the EO Media Group/Pamplin Media Group Capital Bureau. Since 2008, the nurses’ political action committee also contributed more than $1.5 million to a long list of state officials and lawmakers, including co-chairs of the Legislature’s budget writing Joint Committee on Ways and Means.
Kevin Mealy, a spokesman for the Oregon Nurses Association, said during this time period the group advocated for legislation that ultimately increased school nurse staffing and “improved staffing” at hospitals. “The nurses have always been patients’ most important advocates, and nurses don’t think that stops at the patient’s bedside,” Mealy said.
The private sector entity that spent the most on lobbying over the last nine years was Umatilla Electric Cooperative in Hermiston, at $2.7 million. The cooperative spent a much smaller amount — approximately $170,000 — on political donations since 2006, mostly to political action committees that contribute to individual state lawmakers’ campaigns.
Steve Meyers, member services administrator for the cooperative, declined to cite any specific legislation or outcome the cooperative hoped to achieve through its lobbying and political spending, and the state does not require entities to report that information.
“Umatilla Electric has long advocated for the interests of our 10,000 members and the surrounding region, on issues that include energy, salmon restoration, water conservation and rural economic development,” Meyers wrote in an email. “UEC will continue to advocate for our members and constituents on these important issues.”
Government agencies and associations were also among the top spenders on lobbying in recent years, but they cannot contribute to political campaigns.
Although some groups spend as much on lobbying as political donations, Dan Meek, a public interest attorney and co-chair of the Independent Party of Oregon, said he is more concerned about Oregon’s lack of campaign contribution limits.
“Lobbying expenses and reporting is overshadowed by campaign contributions,” Meek said. “I also think lobbyists are only as effective as the campaign contributions they can deliver.”
Meek also downplayed the importance of the software company contributing $20,000 to the governor’s campaign. “Twenty thousand dollars would be significant in another state,” Meek said. “In Oregon, it’s trivial.”
Liz Accola Meunier, a spokeswoman for Brown’s gubernatorial campaign, wrote in an email that the governor’s decision to speak at Vitu’s office opening was unrelated to the software provider’s campaign contribution.
Bill Cross, a lobbyist whose clients do not include the nurses, electric cooperative or software company, disagreed with Meek’s claim that delivering campaign contributions is a key measure of lobbyists’ success.
“Some of us I think are good lobbyists and we don’t have big PAC’s,” Cross said. “Money doesn’t drive everything, but I recognize it is a big factor. But I don’t think it’s necessarily the role of a lobbyist and a measure of success as to how much he can generate. Because in some cases your clients — it’s not going to be a realistic strategy they can use.”
As it turns out, vehicle electronic registration and titling is just the start of the services Vitu hopes to eventually provide in Oregon. The software company already provides software that allows governments to track transactions from vehicle sales to salvage, “so basically the birth to death of a car,” said John Brueggeman, Motor Vehicle Software Corporation’s Vitu Division president.
The company lobbied in the last couple of years for legislation to allow the Oregon DMV to accept more electronic transactions in the future. “We had a bill last year and the year before cleaning up some of this stuff,” Brueggeman said.
Brueggeman said the company has been lobbying Oregon lawmakers and officials in support of legislation that would allow the company to continue expending the services it offers.
“As we’re bringing these types of services into areas, a lot of times the law didn’t foresee what technology made possible,” Brueggeman said.
The Capital Bureau is a collaboration between EO Media Group and Pamplin Media Group.