GOP lawmakers press for job assurances in bioscience deal

Republican legislators grilled Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s staff and a top executive from Jackson Laboratory on Thursday, pressing for assurances that a planned $1.1 billion genetics research center will create the 7,400 jobs administration officials are anticipating.

Republicans, who control a minority of seats in the House and Senate, specifically questioned growth projections tied to 4,000 “spin-off” jobs–involving researchers, new bioscience and related health care businesses created outside of the center but related to the research performed there.

And while the Malloy administration used an informational meeting to tout that the lab would employ 661 people within two decades, some Republicans balked at a proposed agreement that only requires creation of 300 lab jobs within the first decade.

“The point that concerns me is the long length of time,” Sen. John A. Kissel, R-Enfield, said. “Three hundred jobs within 10 years? We could be nine-and-a-half years out (without 300 jobs) and they still technically haven’t defaulted.

The administration is expected to ask legislators during an Oct. 26 special session on job growth to approve committing $291 million in state funding toward the $1.1 billion project that involves construction of 173,000 square feet of laboratory and research space on the University of Connecticut Health Center campus in Farmington.

In exchange for its investment–which includes a forgivable, $192 million loan for upfront construction costs and $99 million in research support grants over the next decade–Connecticut’s return is largely two-fold, according to Catherine Smith, Malloy’s commissioner of economic and community development.

Working closely with the genetic research programs at UConn, Yale University, and major hospitals in both the Hartford and New Haven areas, the Maine-based Jackson Laboratory would provide an enormous jolt to Connecticut’s bioscience industry, she said.

The other benefit would be measured both in jobs, and the money these earners would pump into state and local coffers as taxpayers and into the economy as consumers.

The administration estimates that, at its peak, construction work on the new research center would create 842 jobs within the next few years.

In terms of permanent positions over the next two decades, the administration estimates the project would create:

  • 661 direct jobs at Jackson Laboratories.
  • 4,000 “spin-off” jobs at related businesses.
  • And 2,200 “indirect” jobs, created in local restaurants, retail stores and other providers of basic goods and services that would cater to those employed by growth in the bioscience industry.

If the legislature approves the state’s funding, the administration still must negotiate a final, more detailed agreement with Jackson Laboratory. But the preliminary letter of understanding between the two parties calls only for the Maine company to have created 300 direct jobs within the first 10 years, or otherwise repay the $192 million construction loan. There is no requirement that direct employment reach 661.

“I think it would be a little more truthful to have up there ‘300 jobs,'” Rep. Rosa Rebimbas, R-Naugatuck, said, referring to an administration slide presentation touting 661 positions.

Seeking assurances that the full job growth projected would be received, House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero, R-Norwalk, noted that his caucus conducted a hearing on small business concerns earlier Thursday that sparked a wide array of scared and angry comments from owners fearing for their livelihoods in a poor economy.

When it comes to spending $291 million, “how do we defend that vote?” Cafero said. “What do you say to them?”

But Smith said the administration’s job estimates are conservative and possibly even too cautious.

She noted that a 2009 analysis of the bioscience industry by Pricewaterhousecoopers, a global accounting and professional services firm, is projecting 11 percent annual growth for the foreseeable future. But the administration, in preparing job estimates, pulled back dramatically in the second decade, assuming a modest 4.5 percent annual jump.

Malloy’s chief of staff, Timothy Bannon, told Republicans the administration has a deep level of confidence in Jackson Laboratory’s ability to push Connecticut’s bioscience industry to a new level. Don’t think of the international leader in genetic research as just having the potential to attract similar outfits that someday could catapult Connecticut into a leadership position in the field, he said.

“It will actually, in and of itself, create the critical mass,” Bannon said. “This automatically puts this state on the map.”

Jackson Laboratory’s chief operating officer, Charles E. Hewett also tried to coax Republicans to take a fiscal leap of faith, noting that while economic projections outline costs, jobs and revenues in terms of decades, he is thinking longer.

“We’re going to be part of this community, this state,” he said, “for a century or more.”