HARTFORD—Retiree Duane Billington fought for 18 months against Jackson Laboratory’s plan to expand in Florida, and he was relieved when the proposal was finally withdrawn in the Sunshine State.
The former engineering technician and civic activist became a leader in the opposition to Jackson after “the deal didn’t meet my initial smell test’’ as the Maine-based institute sought a combined $260 million in state and county subsidies to create 244 jobs.
After more than two years of negotiations and proposals, Jackson eventually withdrew its application and left Florida. When that happened, Gov. Dannel Malloy’s chief of staff happened to be reading a weekly Maine newspaper about the situation and immediately sensed that Connecticut could seize an opportunity that Florida had passed up. Malloy sent a contingent north to negotiate a deal with Jackson, and that deal is scheduled to come to a vote today in the state House of Representatives and Senate. Malloy is calling for the state to borrow $291 million to construct a new building on 17 acres of state-owned land at the University of Connecticut Health Center campus in Farmington and provide $99 million in research money for Jackson. But it could not have happened if the proposal had not fallen apart in Florida.
“They couldn’t find a home here in Collier County or Sarasota because they don’t have a product to deliver,’’ Billington told Capitol Watch. “Their business is to produce genetically altered mice for other scientists to study and use in experiments. This thing they’re going into is a totally new deal for them. They have no expertise. It’s an exercise in venture capitalism. It could work, and it might not.’’
A leader in genetics research, Jackson is seeking to move into a different field: genomic medicine. The field involves the study of genes and genetic interactions that are “essential to creating new medicines and treatments for some of humankind’s worst diseases and conditions,’’ according to a 26-page, glossy brochure that was distributed to Connecticut legislators.
Mike Hyde, a vice president and fundraiser for Jackson, spent many days in Florida and is familiar with Billington and his criticisms. He says the largest overriding factor in the collapse of the Florida proposal was the deep recession in Florida’s economy.
“The opponents were saying what they’re saying here – that it’s a lot of money,’’ Hyde said Tuesday in an interview at the state Capitol. “Last year was tough [economically]. This year was tougher. They didn’t have the money to do the project. The bottom line – headline – is Florida ran out of money.’’
Regarding Billington’s criticisms, Hyde said, “I’m delighted to be in Connecticut. It’s a great state. I really don’t have any hard feelings about what happened in Florida. This is here. This is now.’’
The genesis of Florida’s involvement dates back to 2003 under then-Governor Jeb Bush, the brother of President George W. Bush. With NASA and aerospace no longer expanding at a rapid clip in Florida, Bush made major moves to diversify the economy and chose bioscience as the path to the state’s economic future. Eventually, the state and local governments spent about $2 billion to recruit eight different institutes to the state, including the famed Scripps Research Institute outside San Diego. That push continued under Bush’s successor, Charlie Crist, but it stopped as the state continued to run into fiscal troubles under Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who was elected in November 2010. Scott never met with Jackson Lab, and the company withdrew its proposal.
In Connecticut, many Capitol insiders believe the Jackson proposal will be approved because the Democrats control both the House and Senate by wide margins. House Speaker Chris Donovan, who oversees 99 members in the 151-seat House, favors the proposal, as does Senate President Pro Tempore Donald Williams.
Among Republicans, though, the questions have been mounting as they have learned more about the deal since it was announced by Malloy less than one month ago. Sen. Leonard Suzio, a conservative Republican from Meriden who has become one of the legislature’s most outspoken opponents of the deal, said that Jackson pulled out of Florida as the deal was going south.
“It never came to a vote because they could read the tea leaves,’’ Suzio said. “Jackson saw they were not getting a warm reception from the governor.’’
Despite his harsh criticisms of the deal, Suzio said that he is sympathetic to the idea because he worked previously in biotechnology. “I’m not opposed to Jackson. I’m just opposed to the deal,’’ he said.
Suzio agrees with Billington and other critics in Florida who say that the proposal is risky because it is a new venture for Jackson, which earned more than half of its revenue in the 2011 fiscal year from mouse sales and services. The new lab, by contrast, would focus on genomic medicine.
“It has nothing to do with the mice, anyway,’’ Suzio said. “They’re experts in breeding mice. This is a different field. They don’t have 80 years of experience in this like they have in breeding mice.’’
Billington said that part of the problem in Florida was that Jackson’s current work and its planned future work were so different that it was beyond the concept of a Hall of Fame football player trying to become a Major League baseball player.
“If you’re good at football, does that mean you’re going to be a good high-board diver?’’ Billington asked. “If you’re a good, 315-pound center, are you going to win Dancing With The Stars?’’
But Hyde, from Jackson Lab, said he would not attribute the collapse of the proposal in Florida on Jackson’s proposed move into a new field of medicine.
“You could probably find 400 different opinions on the project,’’ Hyde said. “I think money was at the root of it. It was fundamentally about cost. … If the whole thing happened a year earlier, it would probably be a different story.’’
Billington also scoffed at the statements by Jackson that 27 Nobel Prize winners “can be linked to research, resources or genetic principles first developed at JAX,’’ which has been included in the brochure that was distributed to Connecticut legislators.
“When you dig in past their smoke and mirrors, the researchers used their mice, and it has nothing to do with Jackson Lab,’’ Billington said. “These guys didn’t work for Jackson. You can’t claim credit for their Nobel Prize.’’
Both Suzio and deputy Senate Republican leader Leonard Fasano of North Haven said they want a copy of the memorandum of understanding between the state and Jackson. But the Malloy administration has refused to release the documents, including the letter of intent, because it says the documents contain trade secrets. Since taking office in January, Malloy has talked about “transparency’’ in government, but Republicans say they are still trying to get basic information on the deal that could be delivered before today’s vote.
“I’ve got a business guy here who fell off his chair laughing,’’ Suzio said of a colleague’s reaction about trade secrets. “Why would there be any confidential information in a letter of intent? What’s the principles of our deal? We’re not asking for the disclosure of secret formulas. It’s laughable.’’
Like Suzio, Senator Leonard Fasano of North Haven had a series of questions about the transaction, but they were answered Tuesday by Timothy F. Bannon, Malloy’s chief of staff. More answers are expected today on follow-up questions posed by Fasano. In written answers, Bannon said that Jackson will have a 99-year lease on 17 acres of state-owned land with the chance to gain ownership if they meet all of the state’s stipulations over the next 20 years. Bannon noted, however, that the final terms of the deal have not been negotiated yet.“Jackson Lab will not be able to refinance nor sell their ownership of the building without the state’s approval,’’ Bannon wrote.
Malloy himself was negotiating Tuesday with top legislative leaders about the details of a bipartisan jobs package that will be debated today. Since the differences remain over Jackson, the laboratory was not mentioned during the afternoon session. Malloy said that the Connecticut and Florida deals were relatively close in terms of money, but their was one essential difference.
“I think their governor stopped talking,’’ Malloy said. “They elected a new governor. Listen, that’s the difference.’’