The latest barrage of state legislators' newsletters hit constituents' mailboxes throughout Connecticut in recent weeks — as the General Assembly continues to spend more than $1 million a year in taxpayer funds to send flashy "informational" material that doesn't look all that much different from campaign fliers.
In June and earlier this month, all but a few of the 187 state legislators — 36 in the Senate, and 151 in the House of Representatives — sent thousands of district-wide newsletters to voters in their districts. They are allowed to do so under legislative rules, which are made by — who else? — the legislators themselves.
Most of the 187 lawmakers are seeking re-election this November. And, because of the notoriously flimsy distinction between these "informational" newsletters and actual campaign fliers, the legislative "Rules On Mailing Privileges" say that to avoid complaints from opposing candidates, incumbents seeking re-election can't send out taxpayer-funded newsletters after July 15.
And that deadline, of course, is the reason for the recent rash of newsletters.
Despite public statements by a number of legislators in recent years about the need to reduce their mailing expenses during tough economic times, the trend is upward again, after a momentary decline.
Legislators spent $1.56 million on postage for their mailings during the 2012 fiscal year (the period from July 1, 2011, through June 30, 2012), according to new figures obtained by The Courant last week.
That cost, for sending 6,597,481 pieces of legislative mail, was up from the 2011 fiscal year's $1.17 million, a figure that had been drastically reduced from the previous year's total of $2.08 million.
All four of the legislative caucuses — House Democrats, House Republicans, Senate Democrats and Senate Republicans — spent more on mailings during the most recent fiscal year than in the previous 12 months.
Ask them why, and they'll all say pretty much what the spokesman for majority Senate Democrats, Adam Joseph, said Friday: "It is an unfortunate reality that across the country, newsrooms are shrinking and as a result important issues are not receiving the coverage they deserve. These mailings provide opportunity to communicate and inform constituents regarding new state laws, employment programs and community initiatives."
And so, for example, the constituents of Sen. Anthony Guglielmo, R-Stafford Springs, received a "2012 Legislative Update" that told of two big state-budget-related bills that were approved in a one-day special legislative session in June — not an impartial account, but a version of events filled with Republicans' criticism of majority Democrats' handling of the legislation.
"[M]ore than 111 concepts were passed in two massive budget bills during the one-day special session — nearly half of the ideas never had a public hearing," Guglielmo's newsletter said. "It is a breakdown of the legislative process and needs to be corrected. I voted against the … bills." Then he included "some of the items … in the bill that I did not agree with."
Guglielmo's newsletter is pretty typical in that the news it reports is colored by his political viewpoint.
Democrats do it, too: "How do you improve on one of the most successful Connecticut job-creation and economic assistance plans ever devised? You make it available to even more businesses and employees. This year Senate Democrats expanded the Jobs Bill that we originally approved last October."
Different versions of the same sort of partisan language are spread throughout the "informational" newsletters that legislative staff members compose for various members for both Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate; in each case, sections of the newsletter are reserved for individualized passages specific to the legislator whose name is on the front, and the legislator is supposed to review and approve the content.
And, of course, the pictures of the legislators are different in each newsletter, showing them at public ribbon-cuttings for a new local business, or talking to factory workers, or listening intently to citizens. One thing most of the photos have in common: The legislators are wearing their best smiles.
It cost a total of $329,275 during the 2012 fiscal year to print all the legislative mailings. That's in addition to the postage. What's the difference between these newsletters and campaign literature that will be mailed to voters' homes in the weeks before this year's election? The main distinction, according to section 5 (a) of the "Rules On Mailing Privileges," is that it can't be used for "the conduct of campaign business" — or, in other words, to come out and ask people to vote for you.
A small number of lawmakers have been curbing their use of mailing privileges.
In the House, or example, state Rep. Brian Becker, D-West Hartford, did not use the regular mail to send out his district-wide newsletter in recent weeks. He sent his by e-mail. Only three others among the 99 Democratic House members did not mail out newsletters by July 15.
Welch confined his recent district-wide bulletin to e-mail, saying last week that he did so for "cost savings and just a progression of the realities of the modern day [way of communicating]." Mostly for the sake of senior citizens who don't use e-mail, Welch said, he still sends some routine constituent mailings. (Senators are allowed 1,000 pieces of bulk mail a month, and representatives 500 a month.)
Witkos doesn't use his monthly mailing allotments, but did send out his annual district-wide mailing in recent weeks because he thinks a once-a-year mail update is still important. A district-wide mailing for a state senator typically amounts to between 32,000 and 38,000 pieces of mail. House members' district-wide mailings typically involve between 8,000 and 9,000 pieces of mail.
Witkos said he still answers constituents' mail on an individual basis but decided last year to stop the monthly mailings because he couldn't justify the cost in his mind, particularly because he believes that constituents don't read them.
"I don't want to keep feeding the garbage cans," he said.
Jon Lender is a reporter on The Courant's investigative desk, with a focus on government and politics. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, 860-241-6524, or c/o The Hartford Courant, 285 Broad St., Hartford, CT 06115 and find him on Twitter@jonlender.