Cook on Concord: BIA listening session elicits some surprises

Every year, the Business and Industry Association of New Hampshire conducts “listening sessions” around the state. One such session was held June 25 in Manchester, with approximately 30 business leaders in attendance.

The goal is to find out what is on the minds of business leaders so the BIA can develop its priorities for the next year’s legislative session. It also provides an opportunity to review the results of the recently-completed legislative session and the results on priority items championed by the business community.

Obviously, the business community does not hold one view on all issues and finding a consensus to go forward with proposals is a tough task.

Concerns raised by individuals in Manchester ran the gamut. Among them:

• The educational preparedness of students graduating from New Hampshire high schools and colleges and whether their preparation was sufficient for the needs of the business community.

• Public transportation and the need for workers to get to their places of employment.

• Energy and “green” construction were raised as long-term challenges.

• Establishment of a real economic development plan and bring businesses to the state and encourage those here to grow to provide the basic employment needed.

• The cost of health care, the best way to provide it and how to pay for it.

• Keeping young people in New Hampshire and being able to afford to live here.

Several speakers also mentioned something that might not sound like a natural expression of concern from the business community. In the words of one participant, “Do we need to face the fact that there are insufficient revenues in New Hampshire and should we have the business community propose solving the problem with new revenue once and for all?”

Also, the oft-cited need to have an integrated approach to handling all New Hampshire problems with a “state strategic plan,” a topic raised in several prior listening sessions, was suggested.

At the end of the listening session, all those present are asked to rate the priority issues.

The first priority, not surprisingly, was the rising cost of health care and its effect on individuals and businesses.

Second, and surprising, was the selection of “the tax structure of New Hampshire needing critical review.” Whether this suggests that the business community would support a change in the tax structure is open to question, but its high priority among the businesspeople in attendance was a surprise, at least to this observer.

Third, the need for public transportation was identified. Whether this means rail, increased bus or other kinds of transportation is not clear, but the cost of gas at the pump obviously is having an effect on each individual as well as employers watching their employees spend a good portion of their income on gasoline.

The cost of energy was identified as the most important issue by the fourth greatest number of people.

Finally, the need to change consumer focus on environmental matters and change basic attitudes about the environment was deemed important.

Taken in perspective, the willingness of business leaders to talk about the need to improve education, consider the revenue sources and some kind of more permanent fix for revenues than currently exists and the recognition that we may have to change basic attitudes about energy and the environment reflect what should be but is not always obvious. Businesspeople are educated, intelligent and practical, and recognize that, ultimately, what is good for the state of New Hampshire will be good for their businesses.

Brad Cook is a partner in the Manchester law firm of Sheehan Phinney Bass + Green and heads its government relations and estate planning groups. He also serves as secretary of the Business and Industry Association.