March 18, 2014
As originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader
All too often for politicians the big picture can get lost by paying too much attention to details. The state’s budget season is a poster child for not being able to see the forest for the trees. The difficulty for politicians is that we expect them to simultaneously focus on the big picture and to pay strict attention to the details that threaten to obscure the big picture. However, our future as a state depends less on the particular lines of a spreadsheet and more on long term changes that will affect our future.
The problems New Hampshire faces are well known though sometimes we don’t like to mention them. Once a thriving economy, New Hampshire has degenerated into stagnation. Our job growth has been flat not just since the recession but for the last fifteen years. Competitive states are thriving and adding lots of jobs. We are not.
One sign of our problem is migration. People have moved to New Hampshire for work for centuries. The large French-Canadian population of any mill town is a good example of this. We’ve reached the point where a majority of us are from away. New Hampshire is one of only eight states with a majority of its population born elsewhere and the only one in the Northeast.
For decades we had a significant migration of people coming here for jobs. That dried up and more people are leaving the state than coming here. We’ve seen people fleeing the state in six of the last seven years.
Our job market is and remains quite mediocre. According to the census, more than 106,000 New Hampshire workers commute out of state to their jobs. The lion’s share of them would much rather work in the same state in which they live but our stagnant economy offers them no such opportunity.
None of these trends are things that can be changed overnight. Nor does any one of them have an immediate effect on the budget. One tweak in law won’t reverse the floodgates and immediately create $23 million of budget breathing room.
Any long term change runs into naysayers who are focused only on the items right in front of them. The far-sighted politician wants to do more than just managed to get past the current budget discussion. He or she needs to ignore short term political gratification gains and focus on creating a competitive environment that brings back the jobs that will keep our children in state, change us from out-migration to in-migration, and give more residents the opportunity to work here rather than cross the border.
No politician can pick one item or make just one change to reverse a trend that has been building for more than a decade. There are at least a half dozen areas that hurt us. But let’s discuss the two most important to illustrate the trend.
Our business taxes are among the two or three highest in the country. When the corporate tax rate is 30% higher here than in the median state (Tennessee, which also has no income tax for those scoring at home), we struggle to convince relocating companies that we are a good, low tax state. Yet any tax change is castigated by the short-sighted.
A proposed change that would direct the natural economic increase into rate reductions finds objectors bemoaning the supposedly lost revenue. They would gladly sacrifice jobs in the long term for one or two percent more money in the short term. That’s precisely backwards. If we forsake competitiveness, no amount of money can stop us from degenerating into an economic backwater.
The energy sector is similar. Our electric rates are among the five highest in the country ensuring large electric users pay 40% more here for electricity than in an average state. This would be less of a problem if we didn’t want to attract the manufacturing and high tech companies that use a lot of electricity and pay their workers so well.
Yet the debate on electricity rarely focuses on how to lower rates or how to add more lower cost capacity into the market to put pressure on rates. Instead, most of the debate focus on objection after objection to building anything anywhere. If you want to live in a state with no jobs because no one wants to build anything, we have neighbor states who would welcome you. But for those of us who prefer employment, building things is necessary.
It’s easier to oppose change in the short term but that requires accepting stagnation. I’m not ready to give up yet.