Gov. Dannel P. Malloy used Connecticut’s credit card Friday for the last time in 2011, and there were nice gifts for six large businesses, legislative allies and himself.

While two of the Democratic governor’s Republican critics charged that Malloy hasn’t really curbed the state’s free-spending ways, the governor noted that Connecticut’s unemployed got a nice present themselves — and Republicans didn’t exactly get coal in their stockings.

The commission voted 8-2 Friday to release $65 million in financing to businesses pledging to create jobs under the new First Five Program proposed by Malloy and adopted by the legislature earlier this year.

First Five gives the administration discretion to award “substantial financing assistance” annually to up to five new companies or existing businesses looking to expand. Eligible recipients must pledge to create at least 200 new jobs by July 1, 2013. They can take up to five years to meet that goal provided they invest at least $25 million of their own funds in the expansion.

But the two Republicans on the 10-member bond panel, Sen. Andrew W. Roraback of Goshen and Rep. Sean Williams of Watertown, both opposed the funds.

Roraback argued that the funds targeting four big companies could be better served helping Connecticut’s struggling small businesses, noting that Economic Development Commissioner Catherine Smith said $50 million also approved Friday for the Small Business Express Program is expected to help hundreds of small firms create jobs.

“Why would we limit it (First Five) to a finite number of participants?” Roraback asked, adding, “I had a hard time convincing myself and my constituents” that the program is worth the cost.

The initial wave of funding released Friday for four companies under the First Five Program includes:

  • $21 million for Cigna Health and Life Insurance, to modernize its campuses in Bloomfield and Windsor.
  • $20 million for NBC Sports Network, to build a new studio in Stamford.
  • $18.7 million for ESPN to expand its digital media operations on its Bristol campus.
  • $6 million for TicketNetwork Inc. to relocate and build a larger a corporate headquarters in South Windsor.

The commission also released major funding for two more companies through the state’s Manufacturing Assistance Program:

  • $20 million to UBS AG in Stamford for facility and information technology upgrades. The company has agreed to maintain at least 2,000 employees for the next five years.
  • $3 million to Blue Sky Studios for a 43,000-square-foot expansion in Greenwich.

Williams said later that while he voted for the First Five program when it was enacted, he has since been disappointed that the administration hasn’t used it to assist any small businesses, or to secure stronger pledges to create more jobs from the recipients.

Malloy, who has called the First Five a major success and a program he hopes to expand, wasn’t dismayed by GOP opposition Friday. The program passed with bipartisan support before the full legislature. When asked why Williams, a past supporter, had changed his position, Malloy implied partisan politics was at play. “He was sitting next to the other guy (Roraback),” the governor said.

Malloy also bumped heads with GOP lawmakers who voted against nearly $16.5 million for a dozen smaller, community-based projects, most in Democratic legislative districts.

Among the projects receiving funding were: improvements to historical society headquarters in East Hampton; the purchase of 28.6 acres of open space at Cedar Mountain for Newington; redevelopment of a commercial site in Meriden; construction of a public works storage building for Woodbridge; and energy conservation improvements to the Bethany Town Hall.

Malloy defended these legislative earmarks, sometimes called “pork barrel projects” by critics. Legislators can tentatively approve state financing, but funds cannot be released without approval of the bond commission. The governor chairs that panel and his budget office sets its agenda.

“I think there’s an appropriate role for the legislature to play” in deciding how some of the state’s bonded dollars are spent, the governor said.

“All we heard was there were going to be changes,” Williams said, referring to Malloy’s campaign pledges to control wasteful government spending. “Things were going to be different. … But all we see is more of the same.”

But Malloy noted that the commission also approved $243,410 to replace the fire alarm system at Northwest Center in Torrington, which is within Roraback’s district.

“Is this an earmark?” he asked during the meeting, looking at the Goshen lawmaker.

But Roraback said later that this project involves repairs to a facility that serves developmentally disabled clients of the state, and was not a community program he had sought funding for.

“These earmarks are an end run around the competitive process we have in place” in various grant programs, Roraback said, adding that “they just don’t build public confidence.”

Keith has spent most of his 31 years as a reporter specializing in state government finances, analyzing such topics as income tax equity, waste in government and the complex funding systems behind Connecticut’s transportation and social services networks. He has been the state finances reporter at CT Mirror since it launched in 2010. Prior to joining CT Mirror Keith was State Capitol bureau chief for The Journal Inquirer of Manchester, a reporter for the Day of New London, and a former contributing writer to The New York Times. Keith is a graduate of and a former journalism instructor at the University of Connecticut.

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