With Connecticut’s unemployment rate continuing to lag the nation’s, majority Democrats tried to assure voters Tuesday that job development is their top priority.

Leaders from the House and Senate unveiled a jobs and business agenda that includes additional financing for job subsidies, new school-to-job programs, expansion of state ports and business opportunities near college campuses and new protections for businesses facing baseless patent lawsuits.

“Fundamentally, our job in 2014 … is to ensure the people of Connecticut that we get it, and we’re on it,” House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, said during a late morning Capitol press conference regarding the need to grow new jobs in the Nutmeg State.

Connecticut’s unemployment rate stood at 7.6 percent when the state Labor Department released its last report in mid-December. And a controversial study by the University of Connecticut speculates that the rate would top 10 percent had not more than 64,000 people left the workforce since mid-2010.

Majority Democrats in the House and Senate are ready to focus, “not exclusively, but certainly like a laser beam” on putting more people to work, Sharkey added. The regular 2014 legislative session begins Feb. 5.

Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, said that while partisan gridlock has too often shut down Capitol Hill -– and sent painful shocks throughout the states’ economies -– Connecticut lawmakers have a tradition of bipartisan cooperation when it comes to job growth.

“While Congress has failed to act to renew critical unemployment aid for more than one million Americans, here in Connecticut we are taking action to provide a lifeline for families,” Williams said.

“We don’t have gridlock here in Connecticut,” he added. “We get things done.”

One key component of that “lifeline” was enacted with bipartisan backing two years ago, Williams said, referring to the STEP-Up program that offers businesses subsidies to help cover training costs or a portion new workers’ wages.

Businesses have hired more than 2,000 new people through this program, but the initial $20 million allocation for subsidies is down to $2.5 million.

Democratic leaders pledged to support a new infusion of state financing for the program, but said the amount still is subject to negotiation with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s administration.

The new agenda also includes:

  • Implementing new career training designed to help GED program graduates and others transition quickly into new jobs.
  • Allowing early approvals for zoning and environmental reviews to accelerate certain business construction.
  • Creating new procedures to market and sell “brownfields” -– polluted properties targeted for cleanup and redevelopment.
  • Creating a new quasi-public agency to coordinate the development of ports in New Haven, New London and Bridgeport.
  • Establishing enterprise zones that offer incentives for certain businesses to develop near college and university campuses.
  • And crafting new protections for businesses facing baseless lawsuits over patent rights.

Despite Williams’ optimism, the Democrats’ announcement drew criticism from the top Republicans in the House and Senate.

“Speaker Sharkey and Senate President Williams need to understand that they will never have a successful jobs agenda until they get serious about creating a tax and regulatory environment that encourages economic growth,” said Senate Minority Leader John P. McKinney, R-Fairfield. “To date, they have failed to do so. In just the past three years, they passed the largest tax hike in state history, as well as job-killing employer mandates like paid sick leave and the corporate tax surcharge. The reciprocal negative effect of these policies continues to mitigate the positive impact of our bipartisan jobs legislation. We cannot continue to take one step forward and two steps back. ”

House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero, R-Norwalk, said small business programs that reward companies for hiring, and a state authority to promote development around Connecticut’s ports are longstanding GOP proposals.

“Had the Democrats not turned aside many of these ideas that they now embrace, the state of Connecticut would be in better position to create jobs and help businesses grow,’’ Cafero said. “I want to keep a positive outlook and hope that we can take action on some of these ideas. However, I am always concerned about how to pay for them.’’

The agenda earned initial praise from a representative of the state’s chief business lobby.

The Connecticut Business & Industry Association “is clearly happy to see them focused in on our economy,” CBIA Vice President Bonnie Stewart said afterward, adding that Democrats were targeting several priorities of the business community.

The job and training subsidies are extremely important to manufacturing and small businesses, she said, adding that the lawsuit issue, which has become known as “patent trolling,” has been a growing concern among Connecticut banks.

Stewart added, though, that lawmakers and the Malloy administration can’t lose focus on the $1.1 billion deficit being forecast by nonpartisan analysts for the first state budget after this November’s elections.

Businesses absolutely remain wary of the red ink in Connecticut’s fiscal future, and some will remain uncertain about whether to add jobs until they see how that is resolved.

“In order for us to [grow jobs] we have to get our fiscal house in order,” Stewart added.

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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