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"Welcome to Albany's underbelly"

While silver plates of cheese and crackers and bacon-wrapped hors' dourves circulate, lobbyists for special interests from unions to corporations to mental health workers methodically hobnob with state lawmakers _ after, of course, the $500 contribution changes hands.

Welcome to Albany's underbelly, where cash buys access to lawmakers in after-dark fund-raisers that can affect lawmakers' votes the next day. But those on both sides argue that the legal events far more often result in better understandings of perspectives that lead to better public policy down the road.

In 2002, lobbyists spent $92 million trying to influence legislators. Much of it was raised on what is sometimes called "the circuit" of fund-raisers during the legislative session, according to the state lobbying commission's 2003 report. Odds are that the ever-climbing total approached or exceeded the $100 million mark in 2003.

Take last Tuesday. At least seven fund-raisers around the capital trumped even Super Tuesday and New York's primary for legislators. But then, the need to host or attend fund-raisers has been known to dictate when a legislative session ends for the day or when some closed-door budget negotiations between legislative leaders and the governor conclude. -- Private parties, secret alliances, cash drive public Albany (AP)