Where lawmakers stand on business groups’ agenda

When it comes to regulating business, the role of government is to “get out of the way,” said Rep. John Hunt, R-Rindge, ranking member of the House Commerce Committee.

On the other hand, said Hunt, at the national level it’s “appropriate for government to step in” at this point in order to buy out bad assets that speculators bought up to prevent a Wall Street meltdown.

Hunt’s flexibility and his willingness to help business when needed and leave it alone when not helped him rack up the most “pro-business” voting record in the New Hampshire House over the last two years, according to an NHBR analysis of voting records based on input from four New Hampshire business groups: the Business and Industry Association; the Lodging and Restaurant Association; the Homebuilders and Remodelers Association; and the Independent Insurance Agents.

According to the analysis, Hunt voted the way those business groups wanted him to 80 percent of the time.

In the Senate, the leading record belongs to Peter Bragdon, R-Milford, with a nearly 70 percent agreement rate. Bragdon is another conservative who believes that government should not over-regulate business. On the other hand, Bragdon was a co-sponsor of, and voted for, the Regional Green House Gas Initiative, which some business groups supported and others opposed.

“The market needs someone to keep an eye on it,” said Bragdon, but not so much that “it rolls back business, or even drives people out of business.”

At the opposite end, according to these business groups’ agendas, was Rep. Ron Mack, R-Hancock, a freshman lawmaker and mediator, with a 21 percent rating, and Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester, a veteran moderate, with a 42 percent rating.

Neither considers himself anti-business. Mack, who once had his own construction management firm, is usually hired by contractors to mediate disputes, so he thought it was amusing that the homebuilders was one of the groups picking the issues.

Mack said he suspects it’s because he hasn’t been chanting the mantra of deregulation.

“Some things need significant regulation,” Mack said. “Some things do not. But it’s my sense that we need more government oversight, not less.”

D’Allesandro said he worked very closely with the business community. “I’m very responsible to their needs,” he said, adding that, if his percentage is low now, “I have nowhere to go but up.”

Business backgrounds

While the higher-ranked lawmakers tended to be Republican, business issues cut across party lines, with the groups favoring such “liberal” issues as workforce housing and even lukewarm support for RGGI.

Thus it was hard for anyone to get a perfect record or to come up empty. (For a list of how all lawmakers fared in this analysis, visit www.nhbr.com.)

The House Commerce Committee, however, is well represented at the top of the list.

Just behind Hunt was Ronald Belanger, R-Salem, another committee member, with a 79.5 percent rating. And three of the four Democrats with the highest ratings also serve on that committee: Chairwoman Tara Reardon, D-Concord (53 percent), Stephen DeStefano, D-Bow, (63 percent) and Joel Winters, D-Nashua, who, with 68 percent, had the top rating in his party.

On the other hand, Jill Shaffer Hammond, D-Peterborough, who also serves on the Commerce Committee, agreed with the business positions 23.9 percent of the time, the second-lowest rating in the House.

Hunt, a self-described Ayn Rand Republican, ran the Commerce Committee when Republicans controlled the House. Hunt comes from a business background himself. His family owns The Elmhurst Group, a 32-year-old Pittsburgh-based organization that invests in commercial real estate and operating businesses. Elmhurst’s real estate holdings include 30 buildings on 18 sites, totaling more than 2 million square feet of office, distribution, flex space and a hotel, all in western Pennsylvania.

After Hunt moved to New Hampshire, he started a solar construction business. When the solar credits dried up in the 1980s he opened up an Apple IBM personal computer dealership, but sold that off in the late ‘90s, because many of his customers were buying direct, “and I could see the writing on the wall.”

In addition to the family business, Hunt has been busy in the Legislature. He has sponsored numerous pieces of legislation, including bills that would have repealed two recent health insurance mandates, requiring that insurers that cover small business cover dependent adults up to 25 years of age and ex-spouses in family coverage policy. Both of Hunt’s bills were backed by the Business and Industry Association.

“It’s the state trying to tell people how to run their businesses,” he said. “I don’t see business as trying to exploit people or harm their customers. I don’t see the role of the Legislature to handicap business.”

Hammond, a self-employed graphic designer, favored the mandates. She too says she favors small business, especially self-employed individuals who have trouble obtaining coverage. She too was once a divorced spouse who needed coverage, and had to go without insurance for a year.

“The insurance system works fine with people with good income, but those small businesses on the bottom rung need the coverage,” she said. “A lot of small businesses are working hard, but as we get older our incomes plateau and the cost of insurance goes up geometrically. We simply can’t afford it. Mandates are just small plugs in a dam to keep some marginal people insured.”

The repeal effort failed, and the mandates stood, but other bills sponsored by Hunt became law, including one that strengthened New Hampshire as a trust haven and another that would have prevented the fraudulent use of the names of financial institutions.

Not all of the representatives with high ratings served on the Commerce Committee. Nancy Stiles, R-Hampton, who headed the nutrition services at the local school for decades, placed fourth, with a 76 percent rating. Her primary interest was education. But business also was interested in education last session, pushing a constitutional amendment that would allow more flexibility targeting aid to achieve adequate education. There were numerous votes on the amendments in 2007 and 2008 backed by Gov. John Lynch, the leadership from both parties, and several business groups including, at one point or another, those involved in this ranking.

Stiles voted for most of the amendments and said she plans to put in another one next year.

Bragdon, who also backed the constitutional amendment, has a business background as well. He started Achieve Technologies to help companies apply with OSHA regulations, a business that was once identified by Inc. magazine as one of the 500 fastest-growing companies in the nation. He said he ended up selling off the company in bits and pieces. He lived off the proceeds for a while, and last year started a community newspaper, which just started turning a profit.

While usually supporting the free market, Bragdon was willing to increase regulation on utilities by supporting RGGI because, he said, other energy sources, like nuclear and coal, are already getting subsidized by government.

A subsidy of alternative energy would “even out the playing field,” said Bragdon.

He cited another bill — increasing regulation of trade schools — as an example of how he is open to more regulation, as long as it is reasonable. He opposed the bill at first, saying it would have made it harder for one-time business training courses. In the end, a compromise was worked out, so courses that didn’t demand up-front payments were exempt.

“I understand the need to protect students when they have to give a ton of money in advance,” he said. “But sometimes, bureaucrats don‘t understand how things effect the little guy.”

Bob Sanders can be reached at bsanders@nhbr.com.

To download a table of voting records for the entire New Hampshire Legislature: http://www.nhbr.com/pdf/2008businessvotingrecord.pdf

(Research assisted by Emily Hastings)