It's obvious why Gov. M. Jodi Rell, in one of the most dramatic turnabouts of her career, is now supporting the University of Connecticut Health Center project.
Without the $352 million job-creating initiative — or something like it — central Connecticut will be in the economic toilet for years to come.
Are you worried that so many of our young college graduates leave? Just wait.
It's why Rell, in an equally surprising move, is very likely the most prominent Republican in the land now rooting for Congress to pass President Obama's health care reform package. Tucked within the Senate version of the reform bill is a $100 million grant opportunity that Rell says is essential for the UConn project.
"The tremendous benefit," Rell said the other day, "is a more robust health care sector that stands to gain 5,000 new jobs in the years to come."
An expanded UConn research hospital in Farmington, a regional cancer center, combined with other collaborative efforts with hospitals in Hartford and a "bioscience enterprise zone" in the city will create the estimated 5,000 jobs over the next decade. It's what Hartford should have been doing, instead of building a convention center and a still-unfinished entertainment district.
This isn't a matter of holding off and holding our own. If we don't do this, we slip backward: UConn declines as a medical and research school and we miss the change chance to build a new economy centered on bioscience and medical technology.
"You have got to create a magnet to bring these people into the community," said Martin Gavin, president of the Connecticut Children's Medical Center, echoing comments that the leaders of other Hartford-area hospitals made to me.
UConn President Michael Hogan told me that not doing anything risks losing established university researchers — and the research dollars they control — who might leave for more prestigious institutions. Once the slide begins, it's hard to stop it.
I talked to legislators and some of our candidates for U.S. Senate and governor who said they were worried about the expense of this project when we're facing a $3 billion deficit. Yes, this would require $227 million in bonding money and force the cancellation of a lot of already approved bridges and other public works projects in municipalities throughout the state. So be it.
This isn't an expense. It's an essential investment we can't afford not to make. We have lost more than 100,000 jobs. The employment we are creating too often consists of low-paying "leisure and hospitality" service-sector jobs. Those old-school, high-paying manufacturing jobs are going and gone, replaced by maids at Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun.
"We in central Connecticut are in an extraordinarily deep hole. Without this initiative or ones of a similar scale, we are never going to climb out of the hole," said UConn economist Fred Carstensen. "We don't have any credible [employment] drivers."
As legislators consider this dramatic proposal from Rell and UConn, they might also want to consider that Connecticut has whiffed on a series of recent efforts to win more federal assistance, from roads to trains to schools. This is the reason why partisan, petty opposition to health care reform no longer seems so important to a practical politician like Rell. We need to do something instead of just assuming that things will return to normal.
Four of the five candidates for Senate told me that they'd take the federal money — although Republicans Linda McMahon and Rob Simmons take the untenable view that they're still against the health care reform package. That $100 million, tucked inside of whatever health care bill Congress votes on in coming weeks, won't get here on its own.
It's deceptively simple when Senate candidate Peter Schiff says that "the federal government should cut spending, lower taxes and allow Connecticut taxpayers to decide how to spend their money." That's noble, but it won't fund an expanded research hospital. That won't be a problem for Schiff — he invests his money overseas and lives in a mansion in Weston.
Gov. Rell, to her credit, understands what is at stake.
"We need that $100 million," Rell told me. "It's going to be a tough sell without it."
The reality is, legislators must act to approve the hospital proposal and accompanying network of research and health care institutions, whatever happens with that $100 million from Washington.
Because an even tougher sell is a state without jobs.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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