(Updated 9:30 a.m.) MANCHESTER—Senate Democrats want to expand on programs created during the jobs special session and organize a “Connecticut Made” marketing campaign when the new legislative session starts Feb. 8.
Lawmakers announced their plans Tuesday from the shop floor of AdChem, a small precision manufacturer of aircraft parts in Manchester.
“Our intention going forward in this session to come, which will be starting in February, is to focus like a laser beam on jobs and the economy of the state of Connecticut,” Sen. President Donald Williams said.
One of the five proposals included in the plan will allow AdChem to continue to participate in the Small Business Express Program created during the October session.
Currently, the low interest loans and grants is available to small businesses that employ less than 50 people. AdChem President Michael Polo said he employs 48 people but plans on adding as many as 10 more by the end of the year, making his business ineligible.
Sen. Gary LeBeau, D- East Hartford, said the proposal will change the definition of small business to mean one with less than 100 employees. That change will make the program available to 2,600 more businesses, he said.
“Expanding this program to manufacturers up to 100 employees will help them grow and will really hit the sweet spot among state manufacturers,” he said.
Williams said the “Connecticut Made” marketing campaign will seek to build on the successful “Connecticut Grown” agricultural campaign. That program has encouraged residents by buy produce grown by Connecticut farmers, he said.
“What we need to do is what other states and other cities around this country have done and that is to lift up our local and state businesses, our made in Connecticut business, both at the retail level and inform citizens of what they can do to help support Connecticut businesses,” he said.
A study in Portland, Maine found that when people spent money at a local businesses, there was a 76 percent return to the local economy compared to money spent at national chains, he said.
Another proposal will seek to encourage tourism by creating a “Connecticut Treasures” program. The idea is to have the Department of Economic and Community Development promote places like Mystic Seaport, Mystic Aquarium, Connecticut Science Center, and the Dinosaur State Park, Williams said.
“Tourism is an $11 billion industry in this state but we can’t take that for granted, especially in tough times,” he said.
The program would also have the Education Department develop model curriculum for public schools looking to visit the locations on field trips, he said.
The state just awarded a $22 million, two-year contract to three firms to develop, foster and stimulate the state’s brand identity and bolster its reputation as a business and tourism destination. It’s unclear how much more money Democrats want to spend on this effort.
Legislation will also be aimed at helping returning veterans get jobs by expanding the Step-Up program. The program will incentivize hiring combat veterans through tax credits and grants to employers. Sen. Carlo Leone, D- Stamford, said that with the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan beginning to wind down, veterans will require additional help.
“We’re going to have a huge influx of veterans coming back and we need to make sure that we as a nation and as a state and local community that we are prepared for our folks coming home,” he said. “… They fought for our country they shouldn’t have to fight for their jobs.”
Another proposal will prohibit employers from discriminating against applicants because they have been unemployed. Leone said there are plenty of qualified people without jobs. They should be assisted instead of discriminated against, he said.
Williams said he didn’t think the proposals would cost very much, as some of the programs they are looking to expand are not using all the money budgeted to them. For instance, he said the Small Business Express Program is budgeted for $180 million but no where near that much is being accessed.
Sen. Martin Looney, D- New Haven, said the same was true for the Step-Up program, which gives companies money to pay employees while it trains them. Each category of that program was appropriated $10 million a year for the next two years, he said.
“We believe it will make sure that more of those funds will actually be used once the program gets rolling,” he said.
Sen. Steve Cassano, D- Manchester, said AdChem was a good example of the type of business the new legislation will be designed to help. He said manufacturing was a strong point in the state’s economy, though many don’t realize it.
“There’s been a myth across this state that manufacturing is dying and dead in Connecticut. I’d like to dispell that rumor,” he said. “… We are the manufacturing capital of this country whether people recognize that or not.”
Sen. Beth Bye, D- West Hartford, said with the manufacturing industry expanding, the state needed to do more to make sure that there are qualified workers to fill positions.
“This is one of our biggest challenges in Connecticut, making sure that we have the workforce to meet the needs of our manufacturers because if we don’t those jobs will go elsewhere,” she said.
House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero said the best way to make progress on the jobs front is to work in a bipartisan way.
“This is to my memory the 5th time Senate Democrats have announced that their focus is going to be on jobs and thus far the only real effort that’s been successful is what we did in October,” he said. “Anything we can do to attract jobs is a good thing and my caucus will be happy to work with them.”
Cafero said he hopes the success of the bipartisan jobs bill motivates Democrats to work more closely with their Republican colleagues. He said most of the proposals that were laid out Tuesday were fairly general.
The “Connecticut Made” proposal could be problematic depending on exactly what Democrats had in mind, he said. Cafero recalled when he served on the Labor Committee a bill raised to encourage the purchasing of parts made in the state threatened to slow down the workings of government. In certain types of manufacturing, not all parts needed are actually made in Connecticut, he said.
However, he said it would be good if the bill could prevent situations like where a marketing contract to re-brand the state went to a New York firm rather than one in Connecticut.