Can Malloy win bipartisan backing for bioscience lab?

When Gov. Dannel P. Malloy announced plans to commit $291 million in state funds to bring a major bioscience lab to Connecticut, Republican legislative leaders voiced support but said they had a lot of questions. Two weeks later those questions persist, and Malloy acknowledged Thursday he may not get the overwhelming bipartisan support he hoped for.

“I think it has widespread support but it probably doesn’t have universal support,” Malloy said of his push to lure Jackson Laboratory to construct a new research center on the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington.

With Democrats holding large majorities in both chambers, Malloy isn’t expected to need Republican support to secure funding for the lab. But the governor told his commissioners at their monthly meeting Thursday that a bipartisan commitment to improve Connecticut’s business climate would send an important message to companies everywhere.

He predicted that he would soon reach bipartisan accord on a package of job growth bills to consider in a special session scheduled for Oct. 26. But what level of support does Malloy expect from Republicans on a separate measure to fund the lab project?

I don’t know,” he told Capitol reporters following the meeting.

“But if you don’t build a bridge, nobody can cross it,” added Malloy, who has argued state government has done little to reverse two decades of abysmal job growth. “And Connecticut has been out of the bridge-building business for a long time.”

Republican legislators were largely noncommittal Wednesday as they met with Malloy’s chief of staff, Timothy Bannon, and the administration’s economic and community development commissioner, Catherine Smith, to discuss the Jackson Laboratory project.

The Maine-based, not-for-profit research firm wants to construct a $1.1 billion, 173,000-square-foot laboratory and research center on the Farmington campus. Malloy is asking lawmakers to approve a forgivable, $192 million loan for upfront construction costs and $99 million in research support grants over the next decade.

In return, administration officials estimate, more than 4,600 bioscience jobs would be generated largely through spin-off companies, and another 2,000 would be added to local service and retail operations from increased economic activity. Malloy officials also predict the project would create more than 840 temporary construction jobs in the next few years.

But Republican lawmakers questioned whether those projections were optimistic, and why a tentative agreement between the administration and Jackson Laboratory would require the research firm only to guarantee to employ 300 staffers in Farmington within 10 years after the center’s opening.

“If they give me [an economic] model they want me to use, we’ll run another model,” the governor said Thursday when asked about GOP concerns.

Smith has said the job projections are conservative.

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.

What is certain, the governor added, is “if we don’t make the investment, … we’re not going to see any of the jobs.”

House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero, R-Norwalk, said Thursday that “I think a lot of people are torn. The prospect of an operation like this moving into Connecticut is very exciting. But there are very legitimate questions.”

Cafero added he is one of those who remains uncertain, but that he also believes there still is time to resolve those concerns before the special session.

“I leave an open book on this, but I want to get to ‘yes,'” he said. “It’s an exciting project, but I’m not going to get there if our questions about the level of risk aren’t answered.”

Malloy said he expects the $291 million funding question will be voted upon on Oct. 26 separately from other job growth proposals. The governor’s staff pledged Wednesday to work to resolve all GOP questions about the deal.

Administration officials and several legislators from both parties have acknowledged there is a broad consensus to make reforms in several areas, including: reducing regulations and streamlining the state permitting process, improving access to capital, and enhancing education and workforce training.