Hartford — A package of economic development and jobs growth initiatives passed both chambers of the General Assembly Wednesday night with nearly unanimous bipartisan support.
The bill authorizes $626 million in bonding over two years to pay for a series of tax credits, investments and other measures aimed at lowering Connecticut’s 8.9 percent unemployment rate and improving the quality of the work force.
Also included were plans to streamline the processes for obtaining various state permits.
The bill passed the House 147-1, with state Rep. Chris Coutu, R-Norwich, casting the lone “no” vote. It passed the Senate 34–1 with a nay vote from Sen. Kevin Witkos, R-Canton.
"These incentives have been sorely overdue for a long time,” said state Sen. Edith Prague, D-Columbia.
Many of the package's initiatives resulted from Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s recent listening tour across the state.
Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, emphasized that the bonding will fit within the existing debt limits set by the Malloy administration.
“We are not adding new debt, we are finding better ways to spend our money,” McKinney said.
During the House debate, state Rep. Steve Mikutel, D-Griswold, praised the package and Malloy’s effort to meet with scores of business leaders and groups to hear their suggestions and concerns.
“I have not always been a supporter of the governor, but I tell you I am impressed with his activist approach” to job creation, Mikutel said. “This is a real document — a document that reflects the needs of our employers.”
Mikutel called attention to the bill’s investments in expanding job training at state community colleges. He said that many manufacturing employers have reported difficulty finding enough skilled workers to fill their job openings.
Sen. Andrea Stillman, D-Waterford, made a similar point during the Senate debate.
“We are proving that we are listening to our manufacturers who are saying, ‘Please, help us find new well-trained employees,’” Stillman said.
But this wasn’t enough to get Coutu’s vote. He said he liked a few items in the package, such as the streamlined permitting process, but couldn't get over the final price tag, which comes in a year in which the state has already raised taxes on residents and businesses.
"My only purpose on this earth right now is visiting business owners and asking them what's wrong," said Coutu, who is campaigning to replace U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, in 2012. “Very few of them say, ‘I need the government to raise my taxes and give other people the tax money.’”
House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero, R-Norwalk, said the package was the result of numerous hours of discussion and compromise between Democrats and Republicans.
“I’m proud of this bill, and I’m proud of the process that took place to create this bill,” he said.
The package will:
* Require state agencies such as the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection to adopt a streamlined permitting process.
* Create a Small Business Express program to provide small businesses and manufacturers with loans, forgivable loans and matching grants that range from $10,000 to $250,000.
* Create a Subsidized Training and Employment Program to help small businesses and small manufacturers train and employee workers.
* Permit two wine festivals a year in Connecticut instead of just one.
* Authorize up to $50 million in additional funding for the Department of Transportation's Fix-It-First Bridge Program.
* Double to 100 the number of small manufacturing companies that can participate in the Manufacturing Reinvestment Account program.
* Make the Business Entity Tax, currently a $250 annual payment, payable every other year.
* Expand and rebrand the governor’s First Five program of economic development incentives. It will now be the First Five Plus program, and will provide growth incentives for up to 10 projects this fiscal year.
* Require boards of education to better promote vocational and technical career fields to students and their parents.
* Lower to $25,000 from $100,000 the minimum investment required to qualify for the “angel investor” income tax credit.
* Expand the precision manufacturing program at Asnuntuck Community College, which is in Enfield, and make investments to establish or expand manufacturing technology programs at regional community-technical colleges.
* Provide $20 million to remediate and market for private development five “geographically diverse” state-owned contaminated properties, known as brownfields.
* Allow the Connecticut Airport Authority to set up new airport development zones.
* Provide $5 million in annual funding for an energy efficiency boiler program for nonprofit organizations and housing authorities.