By Joseph Spector and Sean Lahman
Albany Bureau Chief
ALBANY - A two-page letter in May from Sen. Michael Nozzolio to constituents touts a new Viniculture Center being built at Finger Lakes Community College that the Republican senator helped fund.
A four-page glossy mailer from Sen. Ruth Hassell-Thompson, a Democrat from Mount Vernon, shows her sitting at her desk, smiling and says, "I write to provide you with an update of the 2012 Legislative Session thus far." She wrote that more work needs to be done in Albany.
Constituents often receive a steady stream of mail from state lawmakers, and the taxpayers pay for it.
The public was on the hook for $6.8 million in state spending on lawmakers' mail between October through March, the latest figures available, a review by Gannett's Albany Bureau shows.
WEB EXTRA: Click here to see a database on how much your representative spent on mailers
The mail shows lawmakers shaking hands with business owners, or them with the popular Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Critics said that while it's important for legislators to communicate with their constituents, the mailers are usually campaign ads disguised as official business.
"It should be content driven, and all too frequently what we see in these mailers are self promotion," said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause/NY.
Records showed wide disparities in how much the lawmakers spent on mail, and some said they've given it up in favor of social media -- a less expensive, more direct communication.
Twenty-four lawmakers spent more than $75,000 each over the six-month period on direct mail. The period's spending wasn't unique, and historically the spending ramps up closer to election time.
All 213 seats in the Legislature are up for election this year.
Legislators are prohibited from sending out official mailings and newsletters 30 days prior to a primary contest and 60 days before a general election.
Prior to the 2010 elections, state lawmakers spent about $7.8 million on mailers. And a majority of the money goes to the parties in power, which critics say creates an unfair advantage for incumbents.
Lawmakers have allotments on how much they can generally spend on correspondence, which includes at least two district-wide mailers a year.
Senators receive $10,800 for first-class mail and $21,000 for bulk-rate mail. They also receive money for newsletters, with the cost based on the size of the district.
Minority members who hold top positions on committees receive an additional $11,000 for mail. Majority-party senators receive an additional $52,000 a year.
Between October and March, Assembly Democrats spent $1.7 million on mail. Assembly Republicans, who have 49 members compared to 101 Democratic members, spent nearly half.
The disparity wasn't as great in the Senate, when in 2009 a leadership coup forced the majority to more equally share resources with the minority party. Republicans, who control the Senate with a 33-29 seat majority, spent $2.4 million on mail, compared to $1.7 million for Democrats.
Some lawmakers defended their mail, saying it provides helpful information to the people they represent.
Sen. William Larkin, R-New Windsor, Orange County, spent $156,881 over the six-month period -- the most of any lawmaker. Second was Sen. Adriano Espaillat, D-Bronx, at nearly $140,000, followed by Sen. Kenneth Lavalle, R-Suffolk County, and Nozzolio, who spent nearly $114,000.
Larkin said most of the correspondence related to last year's tropical storms Irene and Lee. His Hudson Valley district was hit hard by the storms.
"You have to depend on mailers because you just don't have enough staff to sit at a typewriter and type each individual letter," Larkin said.
Nozzolio did not return calls seeking comment.
Senate Republicans have touted their frugality since regaining the majority in 2011. They said the Senate spent $11 million less than budgeted in the 2011-12 fiscal year, which ended March 31.
New York has one of the most expensive legislatures in the nation, at a cost of about $219 million a year.
The Senate's budget is about $92 million, and it spent $81.3 million in the last fiscal year. The budget in the Democratic-led Assembly is $105 million, and it spent about $8 million less than budgeted, a spokesman said last month.
For the six-month period that ended in March, the Legislature spent a total of $102 million on staff and their offices.
Some lawmakers said they've stopped mailers and use social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, to interact with residents.
Assemblyman James Tedisco, R-Schenectady, spent $355 on mailing costs between October and March. He is leading an effort to cut down the paper usage at the Capitol and seeking a constitutional change to no longer require printed copies of bills -- which can stack high on lawmakers' desks.
He said the mailers are a waste of money amid the technological advances.
"I think using social media and getting out personally to shake hands, ring doorbells, go to events, is the way to do it when you are facing deficits and people can't find jobs," he said.
Assemblyman Kevin Cahill, D-Kingston, said he will send out a mailer occasionally, but only to provide information to residents. He spent $808 on mail between October and March.
"I cringe when they come to my door for other people," Cahill said. "We shouldn't be paying for campaign literature. My brochures are informational."