By Joseph Spector and Sean Lahman, Gannett Albany Bureau
ALBANY -- State lawmakers spent $7.1 million on mailings to constituents in the six months prior to their re-election bids, a 5 percent increase from the previous six months, a review of state records showed.
All 212 legislative seats were up for election last November, and the ability to send out taxpayer-funded mail to constituents has long been criticized as perk of incumbency.
Legislators are prohibited from sending out official mailings and newsletters 30 days prior to primaries and 60 days before the general election.
Before then, spending on mail increased from $6.8 million to $7.1 million between October 2011 and March 2012 and April 2012 and September 2012, state records reviewed by Gannett's Albany Bureau showed.
WEB EXTRA: Click here for a searchable database of state lawmakers' office and mailing expenses over the past year.
The majority went to the parties in power. Senate Republicans spent $2.7 million on mail between March and September, compared to $1.4 million for Democrats.
Last year, Republicans held a slim 32-30 seat majority. The GOP lost the majority in the November elections, but retained power through a coalition with five Democrats.
Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause/NY, said the money for mail should be evenly dispersed.
"We think it's important that members are able to communicate meaningful information to their constituents," Lerner said. "But to the extent that there is inequality of the distribution of the mailing privilege, there's no reason for constituents to be punished or penalized by party politics."
In the Assembly, Democrats spent $2 million on mail over the six-month period, while Republicans spent nearly $1 million. Democrats held control 102 of the 150 seats in the chamber last year and expanded their majority after the November elections.
The $7.1 million on mailers over the six months was less than the spending prior to the 2010 elections. Lawmakers spent about $7.8 million on mailers in the six months prior to the 2010 elections.
Lawmakers have allotments on how much they can spend on correspondence. It includes at least two district-wide mailers a year.
For example, senators receive $10,800 for first-class mail and $21,000 for bulk-rate mail. They also receive money for newsletters, and the cost is based on a district's size. The majority-party senators receive an additional $52,000 a year.
Sen. Roy McDonald, R-Saratoga, spent the most among lawmakers on mail between October 2011 and September 2012, a total of nearly $238,000. He was facing a tough re-election last year and lost in a GOP primary.
Sen. William Larkin, R-New Windsor, Orange County, spent the second most at $226,000. Much of Larkin's mail costs came in late 2011 after tropical storms Irene and Lee hit his district, and he said last year he needed to send out information about relief efforts.
Sen. James Seward, R-Milford, Otsego County, said some of his mail expenses had to do with the storms, which hit his seven-county district. Seward ranked fourth on the list, behind Sen. Kenneth Lavalle of Long Island, at about $200,000.
"We did send out informational mailings with Hurricane Irene and Lee," Seward said. "I have a huge, spread-out district."
Seward noted that he couldn't use the Internet for correspondence as much as some other lawmakers did. He district is largely rural, and some places have spotty Internet access, he said.
Sen. Joseph Robach, R-Greece, Monroe County, ranked 10 on the list of mailing expenses over the past year, followed by Sen. Thomas O'Mara, R-Big Flats, Chemung County.
Sen. Greg Ball, R-Patterson, Putnam County, ranked 21st. He spent nearly $17,000 less over the past six months than he did the prior six months, records show.
Between October 2011 and September 2012, lawmakers spent nearly $100 million on their offices and staff. It was up 2.7 percent between the first six months and last six months of the reporting period.
Scott Reif, a spokesman for Senate Republicans, said the conference has cut spending since it regained the majority in 2011. Senate Democrats held the majority in 2009 and 2010 and heavily overspent their budget, which is about $92 million a year because it includes central staff not assigned to any specific lawmaker.
"Under Republican leadership, the Senate is spending nearly $10 million less than the Democrats did during the same 2010 reporting period," Reif said in a statement. "We've made it a priority to protect the taxpayers and will continue to do more with less."
Gannett Albany Bureau