At an upbeat, bipartisan bill-signing ceremony, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy delivered a lengthy defense Wednesday of the generous economic-development packages recently awarded to CIGNA, ESPN and an online ticket brokerage, TicketNetwork.

Malloy said that value of the state aid was to deepen those companies’ ties to Connecticut in a volatile time, protecting thousands of existing job as it guaranteed hundreds of new jobs and millions in private investments. In the case of CIGNA, it helped convince the company to make the state its headquarters.

“Let’s put it a different way. How about if we lost all of those?” Malloy asked. “How about if Ticket Network had gone to Rhode Island or Massachusetts or New York? The headquarters from CIGNA had decided to go to one of the states that was courting them? Or ESPN doesn’t make massive additional investments in Connecticut?”

The governor’s remarks were a tacit acknowledgement that the assistance he has extended to three in-state companies–up to $71 million to CIGNA, $25 million to ESPN and $8 million to TicketNetwork, all in the form of loans, grants and tax breaks–has drawn mixed reviews, at best.

Such aid often has the whiff of greenmail, as states compete for jobs in a down economy. Hovering over each deal, which are negotiated in private, is the same question: Is the state getting played?

“Hopefully, we don’t get played,” Malloy said. Then he smiled and added, “I’m going to announce today that the Patriots are not coming to Connecticut.”

The reference was to a high-stakes effort by a predecessor, Gov. John G. Rowland, to court the NFL franchise to a stadium that was to be built in downtown Hartford. The Patriots agreed, then reneged, largely over questions about the feasibility of constructing a stadium on a tight, riverfront site.

“On the other hand, I’m a hockey fan,” Malloy added. “I don’t have anything to say about hockey.”

Some hockey boosters still talk about trying again for an NHL franchise to replace the Whalers, which departed Hartford for North Carolina in 1997.

Malloy’s chosen forum was a ceremony at Bradley International Airport celebrating an economic-development initiative praised by minority Republicans: legislation creating a new airport authority to oversee Bradley and five other airports.

Following a model used to manage most major airports, the new authority is intended to better capitalize on Bradley as an engine for economic development.

A day after challenging the governor over the true value of a labor concession package, House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk, stood next to Malloy and gave him unqualified praise for the airport authority.

“Credit is due to our governor,” Cafero said.

Malloy, whose administration did not invite Cafero or Senate President John P. McKinney to the Cigna announcement, noted that the airport bill received strong, bipartisan support in the House and Senate.

‘This is one where he actually agreed with me. I have to bring him out once in a while,” Malloy said of Cafero. “I wouldn’t hold my breath that its going to happen a lot, but here we are. We’re together.”

Cafero’s rationale for his praise of the Democratic governor was simple.

“When he gets it right, he deserves the credit,” Cafero said. “He got this right.”

The leaders of the Democratic majority, House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan of Meriden and Senate President Pro Tempore Donald E. Williams Jr. of Brooklyn, also were among the legislators to receive pens from Malloy after the ceremonial bill signing.

Despite the celebratory nature of the event, Malloy was prepared for press questions about his administration’s signature economic development effort: A “First Five” program offering aid to the first five companies to pledge to create at least 200 jobs and invest $25 million.

“He is very aware of what is being said and being written and being opined about,” said Roy Occhiogrosso, Malloy’s senior adviser.

Malloy told reporters after the bill signing that his administration is negotiating with out-of-state companies, particularly precision manufacturers, about relocating to Connecticut, but that retaining existing jobs also is vital. He called the state’s significant aid to CIGNA, ESPN and TicketNetwork good investments.

The aid package given to CIGNA, a Fortune 500 company, raised the most eyebrows. It is worth a minimum of $47 million for a return of at least 200 jobs and an investment of $100 million. It came with a bonus: CIGNA, which is now based in Philadelphia, declaring that its Bloomfield campus would become its headquarters.

“We were in competition with other states for CIGNA corporate headquarters,” Malloy said. “People can say, ‘Well, they are only committing to a low of 200 and a high of 800 jobs.’ But if they had decided to move the corporate headquarters from Philadelphia to a state such as Texas, where they have substantially larger number of employees, what would have been at risk is the entire employment base in a state like Connecticut.”

Malloy said the aid to ESPN, which is owned by Disney, helped leverage a $100 million investment in a new building on the sports network’s Bristol campus, deepening the roots of a high-profile business with a national and international reach.

“I’ll tell you, I want them to grow as fast as they possibly can in Connecticut,” Malloy said.

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.

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