House, Senate to take turns being partisan, bipartisan

The General Assembly is displaying a split personality today as it debates two economic development initiatives: a $626 million jobs bill expected to pass unanimously, and a $291 million subsidy for a genetics lab opposed by the Republican minority.

A unified House is set to pass the jobs bill this afternoon without hostile amendments or significant dissent, while the divided Senate argues heatedly over the genetics lab. Then the chambers will switch roles, with the House turning testy and the Senate ending the day on a bipartisan note.

It is not exactly the unified message Gov. Dannel P. Malloy wanted to send to the business world about Connecticut, but the governor and the legislature’s Democratic majority say the special session will be a positive step.

By the end of the day–and it could be a long day, as the jobs bill was not finished by midday–both bills will be on the way to governor’s desk, giving him a new selling point as he tries to convince the business world and voters that Connecticut is open for business.

“The message is that Connecticut is moving forward in growing its economy. We’re never going to have a unanimous vote on every issue,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn.

Malloy said he never expected the $291 million plan to build a genetics lab at UConn Health Center for The Jackson Laboratory, a private non-profit based in Bar Harbor, Maine, to pass by consensus.

Republican leaders said the difference in the attitude toward the two proposals reflects the process by which they were developed: From day one, the jobs bill was negotiated by the governor and all four legislative caucuses.

“We were at the table,” said House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk.

McKinney, who says he is aware of no Republican senator planning to vote for the Jackson bill, said the jobs package was preferable, because “it’s not about picking winners and losers or about one specific company.”

The Jackson Laboratory deal largely was presented as a take-it-or-leave-it measure, with the administration rejecting GOP proposals to better secure the state’s ownership rights in the laboratory building, should Jackson fail to produce promised jobs, they said.

Cafero said that negotiating a letter of intent with Jackson was exclusively an executive prerogative, but he and Senate Minority Leader John P. McKinney, R-Fairfield, said in separate interviews that they sensed in conversations with Jackson officials that the company was open to revisions.

Roy Occhiogrosso, the governor’s senior adviser, said the governor’s decision was that Connecticut was in a competition to sign Jackson, which was being pursued by several states after a tentative agreement to build a facility in Florida fell through.

Malloy didn’t want Connecticut to compete against itself, he said.

“You put together the best agreement you can. You do your due diligence, which we did, and you make a smart investment,”  Occhiogrosso said.

Occhiogrosso predicted that the message that eventually will emerge from the one-day special session on jobs will not be the debate over Jackson, but the bipartisan agreement on a major jobs bill at a time when Washington is mired in partisan gridlock.

“A bipartisan consensus on a major jobs package, led by the first Democratic governor in 20 years? It’s a big deal,” he said.

Occhiogrosso said that will be the message the administration will be stressing, not the differences over Jackson. He acknowledged it could be a hard sell.

“It’s easier and more fun for reporters to focus on controversy,” he said. “That’s not critical. That’s just stating a fact.”

Occhiogrosso said the Jackson controversy would fade.

“Five or 10 years from now, when Connecticut is an international leader in biosciences, people will look back at this day and wonder what the controversy was about,” he said.

The jobs bill was not without its own potential for controversy, mainly over an administration proposal to allow the state greater flexibility to use private contractors in readying state construction projects. The prospect of privatization always is a sensitive issue for labor.

“There have been changes in the language as we have talked and we negotiated,” Williams said. “I am much more comfortable with the language, and I believe our caucus will be as well.”

House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan, D-Meriden, said the original language on flexibility was tightened.

“We wanted to limit it to a specific number of programs, buid in some safefguards,” Donovan said. “It’s almost like a pilot program.”