BIA issues strategic economic initiative

The report tries to give some measurable benchmarks to a state that may have lost its way, says the organization

Most of the 100-plus recommendations in the Business and Industry Association of New Hampshire’s new strategic economic initiative have a familiar ring to them.

They echo many of the positions that the state’s chamber of commerce has taken in the past, from requiring communities to make room for workforce housing to increasing the research and development tax break to a constitutional amendment to target aid to the most needy schools.

But, taken together, the report tries to give some coherence, and measurable benchmarks, to a state that may have lost its way, said the BIA’s president, Jim Roche.

The BIA convened some 200 business and public policy leaders and hired several organizations to put the plan together, including the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies and two consulting groups, Exeter-based Synchrony Advisors and New London-based Mather Associates.

The participants were split into groups that tackled nine subject areas and guided by various statistical benchmarks developed by the Public Policy Center.

But while New Hampshire scored pretty highly compared to other states, there were one or two areas where the state significantly lagged – statistics that were forward-looking.

That reinforced a sense of “growing unease about the direction of the state,” in the words of the report’s executive summary. “The good things we enjoy in New Hampshire today seem to happen by chance rather than through thoughtful, intentional decision-making. Business leaders believe that, absent a well-thought-out, strategic economic plan, New Hampshire’s economic assets are threatened and its vulnerabilities are further exposed.”

One of the topics, business growth and retention, is the first discussed in the report, emphasizing the importance of that area to the BIA, which repeated the organization’s contention that advanced manufacturing and the high-technology sector is the engine that pushes the state’s economy forward.

Thus the recommendation to increase and streamline the research development tax credit. The problem, explained BIA vice president David Juvet, is not just the overall cap of the credit – which state lawmakers recently doubled to $2 million – but the year-or-more delay caused by waiting until all the applications are in before prorating them.

There were several other ideas, including a shared-space manufacturing incubator.

Another, access to a trained labor force, is one of the “most critical issues affecting the economy,” said the report. The inability to “hire enough people with the right job training and skills” forced some firms to grow outside the state, the BIA report says.

Education is partly to blame. The state has the fourth best high school education rate, but lags when you measure how many students go on to college, and those that do are saddled with the biggest debt load in the nation.

Furthermore, according to the report, the state is no longer attracting that highly educated workforce in its prime. 

Many of the recommendations included STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education, and better coordination with business, though there were few recommendations involving funding education. While the report doesn’t specifically recommend support for the Common Core State Standards, the BIA came out in favor of the standards last week.

The section on high energy costs (the state ranked 46th in industrial electricity prices) was a bit more specific, with a concentration on the state’s renewable portfolio standards, a suggestion to use tax credits rather than a grant program for energy-efficiency programs, and opposition to a number of measures – aimed at the Northern Pass project as well as wind farms – that may make it more difficult to site energy projects. (The BIA emphasized repeatedly that it wasn’t taking a position on such projects.) The BIA also didn’t touch the sensitive issue as to whether force Public Service of New Hampshire to divest its generation assets.

Recommendations involving health care were more vague, but they may have more of an immediate impact. The report, noting that the state was next to last when it came to the average family’s premium per enrolled employee for employer-based health insurance, issues the call to “adequately reimburse healthcare providers for Medicaid and other publicly supported health care programs and ensure equitable tax treatment of healthcare providers to reduce cost-shifting to the business community.”

The reasoning: “A reduction in cost-shifting will lower the cost of health insurance for business.”

The concern about cost-shifting led the organization to recently come out for expanding Medicaid. But the report also stated its support for some more conservative positions: tort reform and opposition to health benefit mandates.

Other familiar recommendations range from opposition to increased business taxes, reforming the public employee retirement system, increasing the net operating loss tax deduction, becoming a right-to-work state, finishing widening of Interstate 93, encouraging public-private partnerships for such things as better rest areas, funding the state Land and Community Heritage Investment Program, defending the first-in-the-nation presidential primarily, and regulatory reform.

When asked if the report caused the BIA to advocate something new, Roche pointed to one recommendation – “to explore state agency certification of outside consultants and offer incentives for business to contract with these consultants.”

That could reduce inspection costs and increase compliance, according to the report.

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