Democrats block health lab, Rell says election year politics at play

Democrats on the State Bond Commission blocked funding Tuesday for a new public health lab in Rocky Hill, prompting charges from Gov. M. Jodi Rell that lawmakers don’t want the long-planned construction to begin until after the November elections.

Rell, a Republican, also said the 5-5 vote that blocked release of $69.4 million in bonding for lab put the state at risk of losing favorable construction bids that could save $12 million. Those bids expire April 15, and the governor said that unless opponents drop their objections before then, she might scrap any future efforts to seek funding for the project.

“It’s a typical, not-in-my-backyard” approach, the governor said following the commission meeting. “Frankly, that has to change. It’s not leadership on the part of the General Assembly.”

The governor added she is “frustrated and angry” that a project first announced in 2003, presented to Rocky Hill officials in 2005, subjected to an environmental study in 2006 and granted $6 million in design funds last year, now hangs in political limbo.

Rep. Cameron C. Staples, D-New Haven, co-chairman of the legislature’s Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee and therefore also a member of the bond commission, said a delay was sought by Sen. Paul Doyle D-Wethersfield, and Rep. Tony Guerrera, D-Rocky Hill, shortly after the commission agenda was posted five days ago.

“They don’t think their community understands what the scope of the lab work is,” Staples said, adding that while the project has a long planning history, legislators had little notice that construction was soon to begin.

The 110,000-square-foot lab, which would be built on 22 acres near the state Veterans Home and Hospital on West Street, would handle testing for a wide range of biological, viral, fungal and parasitic disease agents. It would replace an aging facility on Clinton Street in Hartford.

The 10-member commission has five Republicans and five Democrats. And after the panel first rejected Staples’ motion to table the funding in a 5-5 vote along party lines, it then voted to reject the governor’s request to release the dollars in an identical, deadlocked tally.

“Did politics play anything in it?” Rell said afterward. “It’s an election year.”