Bloomfield – Gov. Dannel P. Malloy signed an executive order Tuesday authorizing a searchable website detailing who has benefited from $475 million in direct economic aid granted during his tenure, a concept opposed by a top administration official when proposed by Comptroller Kevin Lembo.
But Malloy, Lembo and Catherine Smith, the commissioner of economic and community development, smoothed over those differences as the administration staged a ceremony that gave the governor a chance to publicize the planned website and his record in supporting business development.
“The governor’s executive order is obviously a significant step toward open government,” Lembo said, standing with Malloy and Smith.
“I’ve never been against sharing appropriate information with the public,” Malloy said. “What we needed to do was build that capability.”
But Smith told legislators in March she opposed legislation requiring a similar website, calling it duplicative of information produced in her department’s annual report.
“Most importantly,” she added then in written testimony, her agency “believes that the requirement to disclose the economic benefits derived from each project would create a competitive disadvantage for the state in its negotiations with existing companies within Connecticut and with any new companies that may consider relocating to the state.”
The House passed the bill, but it died on the Senate calendar at the close of the annual session. House Democratic leaders praised Malloy’s order, and Smith glossed over her previous concerns.
“I think that the comptroller’s office has been great in working with us to make sure we can actually provide under state law and federal law some of the information that was being requested,” Smith said Tuesday. “So, we fine-tuned it.”
Malloy’s order sets a deadline of March 31, 2014, for Smith to establish the searchable database on the website of the Department of Economic and Community Development. Smith will work with the commissioner of revenue services to include data on tax credits.
The initiative comes as the first-term Democratic governor is approaching a re-election year, when the efficacy of his efforts to generate new jobs in the wake of a devastating recession is likely to be a centerpiece of his campaign, as well as a source of criticism by Republicans.
Malloy signed the order in the showroom of Salamander Designs, which designs and manufactures furniture for audio-visual systems. Salamander expanded with $350,000 in loans and grants from the state’s Small Business Express, a program that has distributed $114.6 million in loans and grants.
Sal Carrabba, the president of Salamander, said the infusion of capital helped him create six new jobs and explore a new product line at a time when the commercial credit markets effectively were frozen.
Sounding like a candidate, Malloy said he was ready to defend his record on economic development.
“The reality is I’ve been governor for three years,” Malloy said. “We’ve had our largest back-to-back job growth since the 1990s. We’re making investments in the state of Connecticut, which were delayed, deferred by prior administrations. Rome was not built in a day, nor did it fall in a day, not was it recovered in a day.”
Malloy said 1,114 companies have received assistance since he became governor. The administration says the aid will help generate 11,817 jobs and retain 30,000 others. Smith’s department has a new interactive map online that gives a summary of the assistance given to each company.
The Connecticut Policy Institute, which was founded by Tom Foley, the Republican who ran against Malloy in 2010 and is exploring a second run next year, issued a statement asserting that the latest jobs numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show the state still laboring under a stagnant economy.
Recent losses offset gains posted in July, and the long-term trajectory for the state is for slow growth that lags the U.S., the institute said.
Malloy’s order to create the new website was applauded by some critics of the administration’s commitment to open government, including Daniel J. Klau, a lawyer who writes a blog about freedom-of-information issues.
“This is a very positive development,” Klau wrote. “As the executive order expressly acknowledges, the public has a right to know how its government is spending taxpayer dollars. The creation of a searchable electronic database will help transform that basic right into a truly meaningful reality.”
Klau said providing information online reflects a trend in how governments deal with FOI issues.
“Historically, local, state and federal governments have adopted a ‘requester’ model for their freedom of information acts,” Klau wrote. “That is, a member of the public must affirmatively request a public document and then the relevant agency must respond to the request. That process takes time. The new database, however, is part of a growing trend in which government entities anticipate public requests for certain types of information by making that information readily available via the Internet.”
Wade Gibson, a representative of Connecticut Voices for Children, which also has urged greater disclosure, was invited to the ceremony.
“The governor’s executive order is a bold, forward-thinking plan that will help Connecticut taxpayers understand how well public subsidies are spurring economic growth and creating jobs for Connecticut families,” Gibson said. “We applaud this valuable step toward greater accountability and transparency in the state’s economic development efforts.”
Connecticut’s transparency ranking by the Connecticut Public Interest Research Group rose from an “F” to a “B” to a “C+” in over the last three years. The group said the state wouldn’t receive its highest ranking until more information about its economic development data was placed online.