Lawmakers on Wednesday easily approved a $626 million package of incentives designed to create jobs, revive the economy and undo the state's image as hostile to business.
"It is the most comprehensive and transformative economic development bill that I have seen in my 19 years in the legislature,'' said Sen. Gary LeBeau, an East Hartford Democrat and co-chairman of the legislature's commerce committee.
"People want jobs and they want them today, and they don't want anymore partisan division,'' added Sen. Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who spent much of the summer on a jobs tour and has made passage of the legislation a centerpiece of his administration, heralded the legislature's bipartisan approval. He said he intends to sign the bill into law on Thursday.
"How often do you see this happening in Washington? Putting people back to work and making Connecticut more business-friendly aren't goals owned by any one party, and they aren't owned by any one branch of government — no single person has cornered the market on good ideas,'' Malloy said in a statement issued minutes after the Senate approved the measure after more than two hours of discussion.
"I'm proud of what we were able to accomplish today on behalf of the residents and businesses in this state, and I'd like to thank the leaders of all four caucuses for their hard work and dedication throughout this process," the governor said.
The 77-page bill has several components.
--It aims to streamline the regulatory process, requiring the State Traffic Commission to review applications within 60 days of receiving them and charging the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection with devising a tiered system of oversight.
--It provides an expanded tax credit, up to $900 a month, for businesses that hire veterans, people with disabilities and the chronically unemployed.
--It cuts the business entity tax in half, to $250 every two years.
--It sets aside money for the redevelopment of brownfields — abandoned industrial land that needs pollution cleanup — and for a training program for manufacturers.
--It creates airport development zones to spark an economic revival near airports in Windsor Locks, Stratford, Oxford and other communities, and provides $10 million to small towns looking to revive their commercial centers.
Several parts of the bill aim to help small businesses, some of which may have felt forgotten when the state was handing out tax breaks to big companies, said Senate Republican Leader John McKinney of Fairfield.
"They watched as tens of millions of their hard earned tax dollars went to the CIGNAs and the ESPNs of the world…and wanted to know when they were getting help from their government,'' he said.
Estimates of the bill's cost fluctuated throughout the day. The original $516 million price tag grew to $701 million Wednesday with a new report by the nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis, which included initiatives associated with the bill several years beyond the administration's original two-year estimate. Paying that $701 million over 20 years through the sale of bonds would cost a total of $1.1 billion, including interest, the report said.
Witkos, one of the "no" votes, expressed concern about the long-term costs of the deal, as well as the fact that the proposal stipulates the hiring of several new state employees. "We just cannot afford it,'' he said.
But his was the lone voice of dissent in the Senate. The bipartisan spirit of the debate sends "a very strong message that we're serious about creating jobs," said Sen. Gayle Slossberg, D-Milford.
A similar tone played out during the debate in the House.
"We have a bill … that reaches across the aisle, Republican and Democrat,'' said Rep. Jeff Berger, a Waterbury Democrat and co-chairman of the commerce committee, "and that is creating jobs in this state, helping businesses grow, building our manufacturing base, making Connecticut a global power once again."
House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero, a Norwalk Republican who backed the proposal, acknowledged it wasn't perfect. "Is it the silver bullet? Does it in and of itself reinvent Connecticut? No, it doesn't,'' he said.
But Cafero said he is proud of the bill — both the substance of what it provides and the process that helped create it. "It's not a perfect bill, but it's a start,'' he said.
Coutu, who is running for Congress in the 2nd District, was the sole no vote in the House. Afterward, he was asked why he bucked the bipartisan push.
"You know, the bipartisan thing, I don't want to say too much, but I kind of laugh and mock that," he said, even though he said he votes "65-plus percent of the time with the majority."
For Coutu, raising taxes in the long term by bonding for the $1.1 billion cost of the jobs initiative over 20 years was problematic.
"My view has always been, and what I heard from all the business owners in the state of Connecticut that I talked to … is 'Just get out of our way, stop raising taxes,''' he said.
But R. Nelson "Oz" Griebel, CEO of the MetroHartford Alliance, the capitol region's chamber of commerce, said the bill sends a signal to the business community, both in symbolic and tangible terms.
"When you make the kind of bold moves that are being made ... it sends a very strong message that, as the governor says, Connecticut is open for business ... and that were prepared to put some intellectual and fiscal capitol behind it,'' Griebel said.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun