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PACs Make Last-Minute Money Grab Before Legislative Session Starts Jan. 4

It may be the holiday season, but it's also financial harvest time for the many political action committees of the Democratic and Republican caucuses in the state Senate and House.

Caucus leaders and even some rank-and-file lawmakers have scheduled several fund-raising events in the coming days, aiming to rake in money from lobbyists and their clients before the Jan. 4 opening of the 2017 legislative session.

The legislators' PACs want to fill up their money drawers before the five-month drought that is the legislative session, during which they are banned by law from soliciting contributions from the lobbyists whose clients' fortunes depend on actions by the legislature. The 2017 session ends June 7.

An early-winter blizzard of invitations has already fallen on the lobbyists – who mostly don't welcome the invites, but know they cannot ignore them and count them as a cost of doing business.

They know that the legislative leaders depend on them for political money – and that those leaders, and their staff operatives, are keeping count of which lobbyists, and which lobbyist's clients, show up at fundraisers.

Many a lobbyist will tell you—but only privately, never for quotes— that they know the political people are keeping track and that it's not worth it to ignore these invitations. Want a legislative leader to return your phone call or give you an audience? Come across at the fundraiser.

"Celebrate the start of Session with Legislative Leaders at SALUTE, 100 Trumbull St., Hartford, CT, January 3rd, 2017, 4:30 p.m.—6:30 p.m.," said an invitation whose recipients included Capitol lobbyists. That event will raise money for five political action committees, formed by House Speaker-elect Joe Aresimowicz of Berlin and four other Democatic representatives.

"Please join Senate Republican Leader Len Fasano & Senate Republican Leader Pro Tempore Kevin Witkos & the Senate Republican Caucus for a Pre-Session Reception Tuesday, January 3, 2017, 4:30—6 p.m., J Restaurant, 297 Washington St., Hartford CT," said a GOP invitation emailed to the same general group of lobbyists and other recipients contacted by the Democrats.

Legislative PACs, either formed by legislative leaders or rank-and-file lawmakers, have become so numerous in recent years that even though lobbyists are limited to contributing $100 per year to them, one lobbyist can end up giving thousands of dollars, overall.

And then there's the "ad book" factor.

Both of the invitations quoted above contain a few key words such as "Ad book available" or "Ad space available...at $250 an entity." This refers to a controversial source of revenue for these PACs, so-called "ad books"—in which a business entity can pay up to $250 to buy "advertising space" in a book that's on display at the fund-raising event but never put into public circulation.

Critics say the purchase of the ads is really a dodge – just a means for the PACs to grab money without classifying it legally as a political contribution. A lobbyist can't legally solicit one of his or her clients to make a political contribution to a PAC, but state regulators have not forbidden lobbyists from soliciting the purchase of space in an ad book.

The political reality is that the "ad's" purpose is not so much to promote the company buying the it as to provide revenue to the PAC and to show the pols who provided it. Such ads typically contain a congratulatory message to the lawmaker who's chairman of the PAC. The books can contain dozens of ads and raise thousands of dollars.

For example, from 2014 to 2016 the Democrats Electoral Majority PAC of the state House Democrats took in nearly $27,000 through sales of space in ad books, according to State Elections Enforcement Commission records. The House Republicans' New Friends PAC raised $9,600 in ad book revenue, and their New Horizons PAC raised $6,150, during the same period, records showed.

Those SEEC records also showed that $500 in ad book revenue was raised in 2016 by the Connecticut Progressive Leadership Fund, a PAC headed by state Rep. Roland Lemar, D-New Haven; Lemar's PAC is one of the four listed in addition to Aresimowicz's "30 PAC", named for his 30th Assembly District, on the invitation for the Democratic fund-raising event Jan. 3 at Salute Restaurant in Hartford.

These legislative PACs are allowed to use their funds to assist candidates in campaigns that are funded by public taxpayer money, in the form of grants from the state's Citizens Election Program.

This is one of the ways that legislators – who sometimes trumpet how the public funding of campaigns with millions of taxpayer dollars removes special-interest influence from the process – still get to inject special-interest money, raised from ad books, into campaigns.

And it's another reminder that despite the clean-elections rhetoric of state lawmakers, it's still all about the money.

Jon Lender is a reporter on The Courant's investigative desk, with a focus on government and politics. Contact him at jlender@courant.com, 860-241-6524, or c/o The Hartford Courant, 285 Broad St., Hartford, CT 06115 and find him on Twitter@jonlender.

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