In contrast to the partisan ground staked out in the Senate, several legislators in the House on Wednesday said they were still in the process of weighing the proposal to give $291 million in state funds to Jackson Laboratory.
The House gave final passage to the bill, 101 to 41, around 10:30 p.m., but it wasn’t an easy decision for some lawmakers.
Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington, said she had been intending to vote against the measure right up until Wednesday morning. She said the proposal lacked accountability, if Jackson Laboratory failed to produce the jobs promised.
“I wanted to be sure. You’re committing that amount of money there that means you can’t put it someplace else. So if this doesn’t pan out you want to be sure that there’s protection,” she said.
Urban said she let Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s administration know about her concerns and got a lot of phone calls as a result. She agreed to speak with them Wednesday morning when she expressed her qualms about the proposal’s accountability, transparency, and lack of data and indicators.
She said she would agree to support the project if it was done under Results Based Accountability, RBA, to ensure the proposals goals were clearly defined and tracked on a regular basis.
“So that I know as we’re moving forward we know what kind of jobs. How are you counting the jobs? What is the trend line looking like?” she said. “I want to be sure that as we’re creating jobs somebody is keeping track of them, that somebody knows what’s going on. That’s what RBA’s all about.”
Urban said she was surprised when the Malloy administration agreed because it allows her to be able to ask those questions. Even with an assurance from Department of Economic and Community Development Commissioner Catherine Smith that the project will operate under the Results Based Accountability parameters, Urban acknowledged she is still uncomfortable with the bill. But she said she expected the bill to pass even without her support.
“Do I expect this to be perfect? No. But the way that I look at this is I could vote no and get nothing or I can vote yes and I get something as far as being sure that the taxpayers have some framework that is based on accountability and transparency,” she said.
Urban wasn’t the only Democrat unsure of how she would cast her vote on Wednesday. New Haven Rep. Patricia Dillon also had questions about whether the proposal would really deliver the jobs it promised. She said she thought the multipliers used to calculate the number of jobs were inflated but said the project may still be worth the risk.
“I think some of the supporters are overstating their case. But some of the opponents are overstating too. So I’ll listen to the debate,” she said.
Rep. Steve Mikutel, D- Griswold, was also weighing the pros and cons of the deal. He asked Rep. Patricia Widlitz, D-Guilford, whether the 6,000 spin-off jobs were a direct result of the lab or included all biomedical job growth in the state. Wildlitz said she understood the figure to represent jobs created as a result of the project.
A few Republicans even indicated they were still considering the bill. Rep. John Hetherington, R – New Canaan, said he was unsure how he would vote on the bill because he was impressed with the lab but didn’t understand why the legislature had to approve the funding before it saw the terms and conditions of the deal.
“I strongly believe that the work they’re engaged in is to be encouraged, holds out great hope for everyone. But I don’t know why the legislature is now being asked to act in advance of the details of the transaction,” he said.
Rep. Prasad Srinivasan, R- Glastonbury, who is a medical doctor, said he would like to see the lab come to Connecticut because the personalized medicine field the lab will be working in will be an increasingly important in the future.
“Personalized medicine is the way of the future. That is the only way we are going to be more effective and contain our costs in managing our patients,” he said.
But Srinivasan, who eventually voted for the measure, had concerns that after receiving the $291 million, the lab would at some point come back to the state for more money. Jackson Laboratory mostly focuses on mice for scientific testing and the transition into the personalized medicine field will take time, he said.
“At what point are we as a state ready to cut our losses,” he asked.
Widlitz said she could not speak for what future General Assemblies might decide to do in that hypothetical situation.
Others were more staunchly against the measure.
House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero questioned Widlitz extensively about the unknowns in the state’s memorandum of agreement with the lab.
He asked what would happen if Jackson Labs failed to meet its very specific jobs goals. Widlitz said that the lab itself set the jobs targets and should it fail to meet the goals the loan would not be forgiven at the end of the 10 year period.
What happens if the company decides to layoff 200 people after the 10 year period?, he asked.
Widlitz said there probably wouldn’t be much the state could do in that case but said lawmakers should look at the bigger picture. The project is a good fit for the state and will provide spin-off jobs and create the kind of environment educated young people want to work in, she said.
“The whole idea of this is something we’ve been lacking. We’ve been lacking something to provide this kind of incentive, this kind of excitement in Connecticut,” she said.
She acknowledged there are risks and unknowns associated with the project but said it’s necessary to take risks.
“We don’t have every single detail. We have to have faith in our leadership, our executive branch. They want this to be successful,” she said.
Cafero said contracts exist because things don’t work out the way people want. He pointed to the 2008 financial meltdown that he said Merrill Lynch executives never saw coming.
“Guess what folks stuff happens. Stuff happens. And its our job to make sure we minimize those risks,” he said.
He suggested the one way the state could do that would be to maintain ownership of the building in case things don’t work out, especially in light of the fact that lawmakers don’t have all the answers. He said he suggested that Malloy’s administration and the lab’s executives, who initially seemed open to the possibility, but Cafero said he was later told that was not an option.
Eight Republicans and one Democrat, broke ranks with their party on the legislation which passed 101-41.