Imprudent public policy can chill investment

A disquieting trend is developing this legislative session. A number of bills have been introduced, ostensibly to serve a broad public purpose, when in reality they are intended to circumvent existing legal procedures for economic development projects by imposing last-minute legislative “remedies.” This is bad public policy.

We trust the Legislature, in its collective wisdom, will recognize the harm created by such imprudent efforts and end them straight away.

This session we have seen a bill that would increase the power of municipalities to take over private businesses through eminent domain. The unmentioned target of the legislation is Pennichuck Water Works. The bill is intended to support the efforts of the city of Nashua in its attempts to take over the privately owned water company.

Other bills have been filed to allow municipal control over groundwater withdrawals, something that is currently regulated at the state level through the Department of Environmental Services. The existing permitting process has served New Hampshire well, but a highly publicized project like USA Springs in Nottingham, the unspecified target of these bills, is enough to initiate injudicious legislative action.

Efforts to disrupt the trash-to-energy plant proposed in Hopkinton by making last-minute changes to the regulatory process is another example of inappropriate legislative action. Current procedures involve local planning board approvals for site locations and state air quality permits through the Department of Environmental Services to ensure compliance with federal Clean Air Act regulations. Yet we see bill after bill this session attempting to sidetrack this well-established process using local control and further study as pretexts.

Finally, and most recently, several bills have surfaced to halt or at least delay the proposed Mt. Sunapee expansion. The current approval process for lease expansions of state land is clearly defined. It includes completion of environmental impact statements, public hearings, decision-making by the commissioner of the Department of Resources and Economic Development, with oversight and approval by the governor and Executive Council. These procedures were established by the Legislature, and yet, before the process has had a chance to work, those opposed are orchestrating a legislative moratorium in an effort to delay or derail the proposal.

The Business & Industry Association of New Hampshire opposes this kind of misdirected public policy. We believe the state should not enact a law with the intent of putting businesses out of business, or encouraging public bodies to take over private companies. We also believe it is bad public policy to enact broad legislation when a single business is really the target.

The BIA recognizes that municipal governments play an important role in zoning, building codes, public nuisance issues, conservation areas, planning and growth. But the Legislature has historically left complex permitting issues that affect the state’s public health and welfare, such as hazardous waste, air and water pollution and water withdrawals, with the Department of Environmental Services, or in the case of complex economic development projects involving state land, with the Department of Resources and Economic Development.

The fundamental principle we seek is fairness. In each case, the company was following current rules and requirements to the letter of the law, only to see a bill filed in the New Hampshire Legislature attempting to change the rules in order to disrupt their business plan.

If this type of questionable public policy is enacted into law, it will have a chilling effect on business investment in the state, by both New Hampshire-based companies and those headquartered elsewhere. It also will moderate the business community’s willingness to work with state and local governments on future economic development projects.

Scott Bacon, president of Bank of New Hampshire, is chair of the board of the Business & Industry Association of New Hampshire. Jim Roche is president of the BIA.

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