June 18, 2012 | last updated June 18, 2012 9:26 am

Legislature finally OKs economic development plans

The Connecticut Innovations-Connecticut Development Authority merger is finally a go.

After years of pushing for a combination of the two quasi-government agencies, state lawmakers approved their joining of forces last week.

It was among a handful of economic development initiatives passed by lawmakers during a one-day special session at the state capitol in Hartford.

The merger is part of Department of Economic and Community Development Commissioner Catherine Smith's efforts to create a much bigger role for CI, which is getting a $125 million cash injection over the next five years to help spur more start-up companies. The organization also has a new CEO, Claire Leonardi, whose main task is to oversee the merger.

The goal of the combined entity will be to stimulate business development in the state by pairing an equity investment firm with a traditional bank lender to create a one-stop quasi-public agency responsible for investing in economic development initiatives.

The benefits of aligning both organizations, officials say, is that each has tools in its tool box that can benefit the other agency's customers.

As part of the merger, CI's board of directors will expand from 15 to 17 members, adding the state treasurer and an another gubernatorial appointee. It also changes the board's composition by requiring the governor to appoint three members with backgrounds in business lending and development, in addition to six members experienced in developing innovative start-up businesses.

Under current law, the governor appoints eight members, at least six of whom must be knowledgeable about technology development.

Jobs Bill

Another key piece of legislation that gained approval was a Jobs Bill that expands many of the measures passed during the special October jobs session in 2011, including the Small Business Express and Step-Up programs.

Previously, small businesses with 50 or fewer employees qualified for the programs, but under the newly passed legislation small businesses with up to 100 employees will now be eligible. The change will extend the program's eligibility to an additional 3,600 companies.

The Small Business Express program is providing $100 million in loans, forgivable loans or matching grants to employers to grow jobs or purchase equipment, while the Step-Up program has set aside $20 million to subsidize training and employment for the unemployed, veterans and the disabled.

Besides boosting eligibility, the newly passed legislation also increases the express program's maximum loan size from $ 250,000 to $ 300,000 and extends the repayment period from five to 10 years.

Other measures in the jobs bill include the creation of a "Made in Connecticut" label campaign that will promote products manufactured by in-state companies. Another program in the law will designate locations in the state with cultural, historical, or educational significance as "Connecticut Treasures," to be promoted by the state.

‘First Five’ going international

Another interesting economic development proposal that found its way into the special session — and gained passage — was a measure that gives preference under the "First Five Plus" program to businesses that relocate overseas jobs to Connecticut.

"First Five" is the major economic development initiative created by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, in which the state is offering a host of tax credits and loans to the first five companies that agree to add 200 or more jobs and invest at least $25 million in Connecticut over the next few years.

The program was subsequently changed to a "First Five Plus" program, which will expand the offer to 10 or more companies.

Under the newly passed legislation, the Department of Economic and Community Development can now give preference to businesses relocating overseas jobs here.

So far, only three companies have been awarded grants and loans under First Five — Bristol sports and entertainment giant ESPN, Bloomfield insurer Cigna, and NBC Sports. South Windsor-based TicketNetwork originally qualified for the program, but subsequently declined to participate after its CEO Don Vaccaro got into personal legal problems.

Wooing a major international company to set up shop in Connecticut would prove to be a major victory for Malloy and the state, and there is increased attention on making Connecticut more of a player on the international scene.

Malloy, for example, traveled to Davos, Switzerland, in January for the World Economic Forum to rub elbows with some of the world's top business and economic leaders while promoting the state as fertile soil for bioscience.

Meanwhile, the MetroHartford Alliance has taken steps to try to stir more engagement with the international community by focusing its recruitment strategy on companies from France, Germany, Israel and the United Kingdom.

New housing agency

Thanks to the special session, Connecticut state government will also be getting a new agency.

State lawmakers have approved the creation of a new Department of Housing (DOH) that will be responsible for developing the state's affordable housing strategies including for low and moderate-income families.

The new agency will be headed by an appointed commissioner and work with another newly created entity, a 13-member Interagency Council on Affordable Housing. Both organizations must make recommendations to the governor on affordable housing strategies by Jan. 15.

Malloy has made increasing the state's affordable housing stock a priority. In February, he announced plans to more than double the funding for affordable housing projects in Connecticut, committing more than $330 million to create more lodging opportunities for low and moderate-income residents.

The funds will be used to bring deteriorated and vacant units back on line, increase affordable housing options, re-invigorate the state's elderly congregate housing, and assist low-income families.

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