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With budget closing in, political fundraisers pick up steam in Albany

ALBANY – If cocktail franks, cheese plates and cheap Chardonnay are your thing, state lawmakers have a wealth of events this week in Albany to satisfy your palate.

Nineteen of them, costing at least $8,200 for those who want admission to all of them.

It’s that time of year at the state Capitol when two things happen together: negotiations kick up speed over a new state budget due by March 31 and the pace of well-timed political fundraisers quickens.

This week is the year’s first when the Legislature is set to convene a full four days at the Capitol. Lawmakers have mostly been on a two-days-a-week schedule in Albany since session started in January. The added time in Albany gives lawmakers more time to press ahead on state fiscal matters, including passage this week of dueling “one house” budget bills in the Assembly and Senate.

The four-day schedule also provides more time for campaign fundraising in Albany, where admission charges can be higher for than what politicians generally can charge back home in their districts. From Monday evening until Thursday, at least 19 separate fundraisers are scheduled – all within walking distance of the Capitol – by Democrats and Republicans seeking re-election this fall.

It is an annual late winter ritual that has long captured the critical eye of government watchdog groups.

“The heightened legislative activity is tied directly to heightened fundraising activity,’’ said Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

“In many ways, Albany’s legislative session is really fundraising season for the Legislature and governor. It’s the most brazen example of how Albany operates where those seeking favors during the day are handing over money at night,’’ Horner added.

For his part, Gov. Andrew Cuomo had his campaign last week send out invitations to seven fundraisers for especially deep-pocket donors. The campaign’s move came with just three weeks before the state budget is due – a frenzied period for the near-$170 billion budget that will make winners and losers of a range of special interests, industries and people with business before the state.

The seven Cuomo events, spread out over the spring, include donors being assigned "sponsorship" titles for as much as $50,000 at one Broadway gala, and will include a golf outing in Saratoga Springs and at a posh Manhattan hotel.

The legislative events in Albany are decidedly less splashy, and with lower entry fees, than the Cuomo events. This week’s legislative fundraisers start at $250 per person, many of them for Republican members of the Assembly who wield no power in Albany.

At the upper price end of the week’s events is the $1,000 minimum tab for people who want to gather with Sen. Catharine Young, an Olean Republican who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, who is merely following in Albany’s long fundraising tradition that the higher up the power ladder the more money one can charge for their fundraisers. Young is having her event at the Fort Orange Club, a members’ only private club that is a favorite fundraising stop during legislative sessions for Republicans and located one block west of the Capitol.

The Fort Orange will host five legislative fundraisers this week. Others, including a number of Assembly Democrats who have front row seats during budget negotiations, will be held at another private club across the street, as well as a nearby hotel, a beer bar, a Mexican restaurant and an Italian restaurant. Three fundraisers – two of them morning breakfast gatherings – will be held at the Albany Room, a facility located on state property just a 90-second walk for legislators coming from their offices in the Legislative Office Building across the street from the Capitol.

At least 10 fundraisers are also set for next week in Albany. Over the two weeks, lawmakers with lesser influence over the budget will be asking lobbyists and others for money, as will a who’s who of chairs of several key committees. Lobbyists, who grow tired of the nightly session rituals but say the events are part of their job descriptions, say food can range from predictably bad pizza and wings to a couple of menu choices at one upscale Italian restaurant a few blocks down the hill from the Capitol.

For those looking for an Albany break this week, Assembly Republicans are holding “Hockey Night” at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center Thursday evening that will include admission to a New York Islanders game against the Washington Capitals.

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