Senate Advances UConn Health Center Renovations
It was described by both proponents and opponents as “visionary,” but many senators felt rushed on Wednesday to approve more borrowing for the expansion of the University of Connecticut Health Center.
Announced by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy on May 17, the plan adds about $254 million in bonding to the $362 million already approved by the legislature last year for expansion of John Dempsey Hospital on the University of Connecticut Health Center‘s Farmington campus. The remaining $203 million will be raised from private donations.
Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, said for the additional $254 million investment the state will see five times more jobs than it planned to create under last year’s plan, which was described as a renovation of some of the existing facilities.
Malloy is using Gov. M. Jodi Rell’s $362 million proposal, approved by the state legislature last year, as a launching pad for his plan.
Building on Rell’s previous plan Malloy intends to increase the number of students enrolled in university’s dental and medical school by 30 percent and install a loan forgiveness program to appeal to graduates. The plan also includes building a new patient tower and a new ambulatory care facility, along with renovations to research facilities, increasing not only jobs, but also the number of primary and specialty care clinicians.
Bye said the Connecticut Center for Economic Analysis found the $864 million investment will create 16,400 jobs by 2037. She said the same center estimated that Adriean’s Landing, which was the last big public works project similar in size and scope, cost the state $443 million and only created 1,355 jobs, most of which were in the service industry. She said the health center jobs will create salaries on average of about $100,000 a year.
She tired to discourage lawmakers from assuming this was any sort of financial bailout for the health center which tends to run deficits as the state‘s only publicly operated hospital. She said the bill is solely about economic development to expand the medical and bioscience research components involved in the renovations.
“This is precisely the kind of investment we should be making at this time,” Sen. Gary LeBeau, D-East Hartford, said. “It builds on our strengths.”
While Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, doesn’t necessarily disagree with LeBeau or Bye he said his the plan is “trumped by the concerns of his constituents,” who want the state to stop borrowing for things they don’t need.
“I think this is a want and at this time we can not afford it,” Sen. Kevin Kelly, R-Shelton, said.
Sen. Minority Leader John McKinney said he’s not opposed to increasing incubator space for research and development, but he doesn’t believe it needs to be built solely on the Farmington campus. He said that clinical research should be spread out throughout the region and could be done through partnerships with Hartford and Saint Francis Hospitals.
McKinney said he also has concerns about the amount of borrowing the state has already given to the University of Connecticut. He said over the years it has spent billions on various UConn projects not associated with the health center. If the health center represents 50 percent of the university then McKinney suggested some of the previous borrowing should be reallocated to the health center.
Sen. Anthony Guglielmo, R-Stafford, said he’s a proud UConn graduate and was torn over whether to support the project, but ultimately decided against it because he doesn’t believe the state can afford to spend any more money. Sen. Eileen Daily, D-Westbrook, assured Guglielmo that the state was still far away from its statutory bonding cap and could borrow up to $4 billion more before it’s required by law to stop.
Despite some objections to the scope and cost of the project the bill passed 24 to 11 with some Republican support. Republican Sens. Kevin Witkos, Sen. Jason Welch, and Sen. Toni Boucher voted in favor of the bill, while Democratic Sen. Anthony Musto voted against it.
Malloy was quick to send out a statement praising the Senate for passing the bill which now goes to the House for approval.
“This is an aggressive, forward-thinking proposal that understands that, while Connecticut has a storied history as a leader in manufacturing and the insurance industry, we cannot rest on our laurels and allow the next wave of economic growth – in the field of bioscience – pass us by,” Malloy said. “The state’s flagship public university and its Health Center must be looked at as more than just a school or just a hospital – we need to view them as economic drivers and ways in which we can leverage our education system into long-term, sustained economic growth.”
Malloy isn’t the only one acting as a cheerleader for the project. In a show of support for the UConn Health Center expansion project members of the Connecticut Building Trades Council, which represent over 40,000 workers in the state, came to the Capitol Wednesday to show their support for the project.
Ed Reilly, president of the Greater Hartford New Britain Building Trades Council, said the project would bring jobs to a sector of the work force that has seen some of the highest unemployment rates.
The project would provide an estimated 3,000 construction jobs over the six years period of the project, which Reilly believes could help the struggling industry.
“You have unemployment in the construction industry at anywhere from 25 to 40 percent,” said Reilly. “So a project of this magnitude could put Connecticut’s construction economy well on its way to growth.”
Reilly noted the unions stand behind the project 100 percent because it would offer economic stimulus for the state.
David Roche, president of the Connecticut Building Trades, agreed with Reilly that a project of this scale help start improve the economy by adding paid employees who will work and spend in the state.
“When construction starts, it starts to move the economy,” said Roche.
“That’s what is going to create jobs, our guys can work in Connecticut, they can spend money in Connecticut, and that’s what they are going to do and need to do.”
The project hits close to home for this group, Roche said, “we built John Dempsey Hospital back in the 60’s and 70’s. Our members worked there for years and we want to renovate that place.”
Members of the Building Trades Council stood on the street corners around the Capitol building holding signs stressing the need for jobs, with cars and trucks driving by sounding their horns in support.
Nicholas Rondinone contributed to this report.