Hitting up lobbyists is a bipartisan affair

Democratic and Republican legislative leaders prepared for the 2011 session the way they did prior to the passage of campaign finance reforms in 2005: Hitting up lobbyists to replenish their political action committees.

Banned from making political contributions in 2005, lobbyists are free again to contribute to Connecticut politicians, the result of a court decision that forced the General Assembly last summer to rewrite campaign finance laws.

Instead of a total ban on lobbyists – a drastic step that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit concluded was a violation of free speech rights – the lobbyists can now give up to $100, still less than the $250 maximum allowed by others.

For a suggested contribution of $100, breakfast was served this morning at the Officers Club in the State Armory, where the host was House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk. The club was crowded.

“It’s the new, old way of doing things,” said George Gallo, the chief of staff for the House Republicans.

Senate Republicans held a $100 fundraiser at the Officer’s Club, just steps away from the Legislative Office Building, on Tuesday afternoon. Senate Democrats used the same space Monday night. House Democrats played host last week. Call it a bipartisan tradition.

As part of a package of ethics reforms, Gov. M. Jodi Rell insisted on a total ban on contributions from lobbyists and state contractors in 2005, a year after she succeeded John G. Rowland.

At the time, even some of her allies warned that a restriction would be easier to defend in court than a ban. Lobbyists filed suit, and the 2nd Circuit ruled in their favor last summer. The ban on contractors was upheld.

“Lobbyists can give again, but they are limited,” said Karen Hobert Flynn, the vice president of Common Cause. “They haven’t returned to the days of giving large contributions.”

An old seasonal ban still applies: Lobbyists cannot contribute to legislators while the General Assembly is in session, which is why all four legislative caucuses held fundraisers before last call sounded at 10 a.m. today.

Lobbyists now can put their checkbooks away until midnight on June 8, the constitutional adjournment deadline.

The seasonal ban grew out of appeals for campaign dollars that were tied to legislative action. Committee co-chairs used to hold fundraisers that coincided with deadlines for reporting bills out of committees.

The practice was so blatant that the legislative bulletin published daily by the General Assembly used to list the fundraisers on the same page with the committee meetings.