Connecticut Republicans urge renegotiation of Jackson Lab deal

Posted Oct. 26, 2011, at 7 p.m.
Last modified Oct. 26, 2011, at 10:51 p.m.

HARTFORD, Conn. — Connecticut lawmakers returned to the state Capitol on Wednesday to act on two bills aimed at combating the state’s stagnant job growth and giving a boost to the emerging biosciences industry by investing in a new, $1.1 billion genetics laboratory at the University of Connecticut Health Center.

A wide-ranging bipartisan jobs bill calls for $626 million in state bonding to pay for a range of initiatives. The revised plan, embraced by most state lawmakers, calls for loans and assistance for small businesses, job training and imposing the state’s $250 business entity tax every two years instead of annually.

The bill passed the House of Representatives on a 147-1 vote and awaited final action in the Senate on Wednesday night. Rep. Christopher Coutu, R-Norwich, who is a candidate for Congress, was the lone “no” vote. He said the bill didn’t address the concerns of businesses in his district.

Partisan disagreement broke out over whether it makes financial sense to borrow nearly $291 million to help build a $1.1 billion research lab at the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington, in conjunction with The Jackson Laboratory of Maine. While that measure passed the Senate on a 21-14 vote, the Republicans opposed the deal.

Members of the legislature’s minority party questioned whether the project is worth the taxpayers’ large investment.

“This is no ordinary economic development deal,” warned Sen. Scott Frantz, R-Greenwich, a former chairman of the Connecticut Development Authority, referring to the nearly $300 million price tag. “We have to be very, very careful about making a decision to put this many resources into something that has somewhat of an unclear outcome.”

The Jackson Laboratory, a nonprofit, independent organization, has promised 320 jobs over 10 years, for a total of 661 over 20 years. An estimated 6,900 long-term and indirect jobs are projected — a figure questioned by Republicans.

Frantz and other Republicans said they felt they didn’t know enough about the deal reached between Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and The Jackson Laboratory and felt it was being rushed through the General Assembly. Frantz said he didn’t believe the state has done its proper due diligence of the deal to make sure the taxpayers are protected and urged Malloy to restructure the agreement, which turns the facility over to the private Jackson Lab.

Catherine Smith, the state’s economic development commissioner, said many of those concerns will be addressed during the second phase of talks with Jackson Lab when the state complete a definitive agreement with the organization.

Sen. Len Suzio, R-Meriden, urged his fellow lawmakers not to get carried away by the excitement of building a lab that will focus on the growing field of personalized medicine. The specialty involves determining a person’s genetic makeup to help tailor care and determine the most effective treatment for cancer and other illnesses.

“Don’t rush to judgment. Don’t let your euphoria, our enthusiasm, your emotions, to rule over your brain,” said Suzio, who said he worked for a biotech research company 25 years ago. He warned that it could take decades to see any results and recalled how the firm had promised an AIDS vaccine, which has yet to materialize.

Jerry Labriola, chairman of the Connecticut Republicans, called the deal “a risky, half-baked venture” with many unanswered questions.

“I don’t think government should be in the business of venture capital,” he said. “Instead, government should provide a climate where business and jobs can grow, by way of stable taxation and less regulation.

But Democrats argued that the state needs to jump on this opportunity and “think big.” A similar proposal made by Jackson with the state of Florida fell through in June, prompting the Malloy administration to aggressively court the genetic lab, hoping it would be lured by the newly approved $854 million Bioscience Connecticut initiative.

Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said Connecticut for years relied on the defense industry to create jobs. The economy, however, has changed, he said.

“We need to find what can be our future and moving aggressively into biotech and research can be that future,” Looney said. “It requires us to make this investment today because this is the specific opportunity that has presented itself in this timeframe and now is the time to do it.”

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