Public will get to comment on Jackson Laboratory plan

One potentially divisive issue disappeared Monday as a legislative leader announced that the public will get its opportunity Thursday to comment on Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s proposal to commit $291 million in state funds to leverage the development of a $1.1 billion bioscience lab at the UConn Health Center.

Republican sources had complained earlier Monday that the GOP minority struggled to convince majority Democrats in the legislature to conduct a public hearing, but both parties said publicly later in the day that such input was crucial.

“It was very, very important for us to hold this,” said House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk. “I am convinced but for us insisting on this, it would not be happening.

The office of House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan, D-Meriden, announced that the Finance, Revenue & Bonding and Commerce committees will conduct a public hearing from 2:30 to 5 p.m. in the Legislative Office Building. The panels will hear residents’ concerns both about the Jackson Laboratory project as well as on other job growth proposals set to be considered at an Oct. 26 special session.

“Both Jackson Labs and the jobs special session are matters of great importance to the public,” said Douglas Whiting, a spokesman for the House Democratic majority. “They should have the opportunity to hear first hand the what is being considered, and the chance to give us their best thinking as well. Those ideas will be considered beyond the jobs session on Oct. 26 as we fully anticipate additional jobs initiatives in the 2012 legislative session.”

The finance and commerce panels also will conduct separate informational meetings on Thursday, regarding the Jackson Laboratory project and other job growth proposals slated to be considered in special session, respectively.

Those these will be open to the general public to attend, the purpose is to provide information to legislators. Finance will meet at 10:30 a.m. and commerce at 12:30 p.m., also in the Legislative Office Building.

Republican legislators have been noncommittal about the Democratic governor’s initiative to lure the Maine-based genetic research giant to construct a $1.1 billion, 173,000-square-foot research lab on the campus of the UConn Health Center in Farmington.

The House and Senate GOP caucuses pressed administration officials during an informational meeting last week for more details on the project, particularly assurances that it would create the 7,600 direct and indirect jobs estimated by the governor’s staff.

Catherine Smith, Malloy’s commissioner of economic and community development, said the laboratory is expected to create 661 direct jobs within the next two decades.

More importantly, it also is expected to generate another 4,000 bioscience jobs, largely through spin-off companies over the same period. And an extra 2,000 jobs would be added to local service and retail operations from increased economic activity.

Administration officials also predict the project would create more than 840 temporary construction jobs in the next few years.

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 10 years.

Cafero added Monday that “I’m hopeful there will be specifics for the public to react to” released prior to Thursday’s hearing.

Malloy’s senior policy advisor, Roy Occhiogrosso, responded that legislators “have been given plenty of specifics on Jackson Labs, and if they want more they will get them.”

Though Cafero has insisted he and other GOP lawmakers are keeping open minds on the bioscience initiative, Occhiogrosso added that “it seems as if they are bending over backwards to find a way to say ‘no.’ This is the best thing to happen to Connecticut in a long time.”

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

Malloy said he expects the $291 million funding question will be voted upon on Oct. 26 separately from other job growth proposals.

The governor predicted late last week that he would reach bipartisan accord on those job bills.

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.