By Jonathan Helton

Will New England have enough fuel this winter?

The region’s six governors have their doubts, and in July they wrote U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm to ask for relief from a 1920 shipping law that has limited the region’s supply of fuel, particularly oil and natural gas.

The governors asked the Biden administration to “explore the conditions under which it might be appropriate to suspend the Jones Act for the delivery of LNG [liquid natural gas] for a portion or all of the winter of 2022-2023.”

They flagged the 102-year-old Jones Act because it requires that goods shipped between U.S. ports be carried on ships that are U.S. flagged, U.S. built, and mostly owned and crewed by Americans.

Since New England uses natural gas to meet nearly half of its electricity needs, this old law puts the region in a precarious position.

A shortage of natural gas pipeline capacity makes it challenging for New England to get enough fuel during periods of peak demand, such as the coldest days of winter and the hottest days of summer.

Importing domestic natural gas by tanker ship offers a possible solution. But the Jones Act gets in the way. Its requirement that New England energy companies hire domestic ships to transport fuel between American ports actually prevents New England from shipping fuel from Texas or Pennsylvania to Boston.

How?

There aren’t any American LNG tankers, despite America being the world’s largest LNG exporter, with major export terminals on the Gulf Coast.

No LNG tankers have been built in the U.S. since 1980. This is largely because U.S. shipyards do not construct competitively priced ships. In 2015, the U.S. Government Accountability Office estimated it would cost up to three times the world market price to buy an LNG tanker from a U.S. shipyard, assuming one could be built at all.

In general, most of New England’s LNG arrives via pipeline. Pipeline capacity, however, cannot be added quickly.

As New Hampshire Consumer Advocate Donald Kries wrote in August: “The interstate pipeline network does not have enough capacity to supply the region with all of the natural gas it needs to heat all the homes and businesses reliant on that fuel while supplying all of the [natural] gas generators that would need to fire up in an extended cold snap.”

The Jones Act leaves foreign imports as the best alternative. Unfortunately, imports from abroad often run counter to U.S. foreign policy. Before the war in Ukraine, for example, New England and Puerto Rico bought LNG from Russia on occasion. Similarly, Hawaii imported as much as a third of all its oil from Russia, mainly because the Jones Act made it too expensive to buy U.S. oil. But President Joe Biden’s ban on Russian fuel imports put an end to that.

Energy Secretary Granholm met with the New England governors on Sept. 15 to talk about their Jones Act waiver request, but according to Reuters, the outcome wasn’t great.

“In the event that there is an issue where additional supplies of heating fuels are needed, we would work with the states as appropriate to see what tools are needed,” a U.S. Department of Energy official told the news service.

Such obfuscation is unfortunate because a Jones Act waiver would be a win for everyone. New England residents could have a reliable supply of fuel, and probably would save on electricity costs, which already are extraordinarily high.

A Jones Act waiver also would unlock a new market for Gulf Coast LNG exports. And U.S. maritime interests should have no reason to complain, since there aren’t any LNG tankers that comply with the Jones Act anyway.

Beyond a waiver, Congress could reform the Jones Act in more substantial ways. The law has failed in its mission to ensure a healthy maritime industry in the name of national security, and an update is long overdue.

Today, only four U.S. shipyards build large oceangoing commercial ships, and only 93 such ships are Jones Act-compliant — down from 257 in 1980. Since 2020, those shipyards have produced only two large, oceangoing vessels, with one other large cargo ship set to be completed later this year — and it is not an LNG tanker.

Perhaps the best initial reform would be to repeal the law’s U.S.-built requirement, even if only for LNG tankers. This would put more LNG tankers into service for the American people, make it easier for U.S. carriers to expand their fleets and markets, provide more jobs for U.S. mariners, and help keep New England warm during the coming winter.

Everyone would win.

If we maintain the status quo, the odds of New Englanders running short of fuel this winter remain elevated. Why court such a disaster when a solution is as easy as reforming a single bad shipping regulation?

Jonathan Helton is a research associate at the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii.

 

Two events on opposite ends of the state last week highlighted the central problem with New Hampshire’s housing market.

In Newmarket over the weekend, a group of renters held a demonstration to denounce landlords and protest high rents.

After experiencing a substantial rent increase, one couple said they had to move out of town to find a place where the rent and the quality of the apartment were better matched. 

That place, they said, is New Jersey.

Another protester said she had moved to Maine to find a more reasonable rent.

It’s true that, on average, moving from Rockingham County to Maine will lower one’s rent, as average rents are lower in Maine than in New Hampshire.

Apartmentlist.com puts the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment at $952 in Maine and $1,329 in New Hampshire.

Home prices are lower in Maine too.

The median home price in New Hampshire is about $430,000. 

In Maine, it’s about $350,000.

Maine and New Hampshire have almost identical populations. Maine has 1.34 million people, and New Hampshire has 1.35 million people.

That’s not enough of a difference to create such huge price variations for housing.

Why would prices be so much lower in Maine?

In a word: Supply.

Maine has 101,000 more housing units than New Hampshire does, according to Census Bureau data.

That’s almost exactly as many housing units as exist in Merrimack and Cheshire Counties combined. 

If New Hampshire had 101,000 more housing units, what do you think the effect would be on home prices and rents?

A few days before the Newmarket protest, residents of Keene demonstrated exactly why New Hampshire is suffering from a severe housing shortage that has driven home prices and rents to record levels.

On Wednesday, Keene’s Planning, Licenses and Development Committee recommended unanimously that the city council send back to committee a proposed zoning ordinance that would allow more housing in the city’s rural district, the Keene Sentinel reported.

The city had proposed reducing the minimum lot size in the rural zone from 5 acres to 2. 

That’s right. The City of Keene has a rural zone with a mandatory minimum lot size of five acres. Within that zone, no house may legally be built on any lot smaller than five acres.

This is exactly the kind of government regulation that reduces the housing supply and raises prices. 

Keene officials wanted to do their part to make it less expensive to build single-family homes in large sections of the city. But about 15 people showed up to oppose the ordinance, with many saying it would change the rural character of the City of Keene. 

Spooked city officials promptly moved to withdraw and rework the proposed ordinance.

Meanwhile, prices continue to rise and pressure continues to build for legislative action. Activists are pushing hard for state laws to pre-empt local zoning ordinances or regulate prices.

If local governments don’t take more decisive action to trim regulations that limit housing supply, state-imposed solutions will come. It’s only a matter of time. 

Energy shortages in California and Europe have prompted a revival of interest in Nuclear power. And who gets the credit? Environmental activists, naturally. 

Why even environmental activists are supporting nuclear power today,” National Public Radio gushed last week. 

The few environmentalists highlighted in the story deserve credit for taking such an unpopular position within the movement. NPR even acknowledges their pariah status.

“We felt like we were on an island all by ourselves,” Mothers for Nuclear activist Kristin Zaitz said. “We had people wishing that we would die, wishing we would get cancer…making weird videos about us that made me feel like, am I unsafe, is my family unsafe?”

This aired on NPR, which is progress. Also progress: NPR accurately reported nuclear power’s superior record on safety and pollution:

“In terms of deaths from accidents or pollution, nuclear is far safer than coal or natural gas – the largest sources of electricity in the U.S.

“Diablo Canyon got a boost last year when researchers from MIT and Stanford said keeping the plant open until 2035 would cut carbon emissions from California’s power sector by more than 10% and save $2.6 billion in electricity costs.”

This is welcome, yet these assessments of nuclear power’s safety and environmental record aren’t exactly news. 

You might not know that, though, if you listened to most environmental activists, who’ve spent decades wrongly portraying nuclear power as more dangerous and worse for the environment than other options. 

Environmental activists were the ones who pushed for Germany to close its perfectly good nuclear power plants, making the country more reliant on Russian oil and gas. 

They pushed for California to close the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, without which California probably would be suffering blackouts right now.

They pushed for the closure of Vermont Yankee, which resulted in increased carbon emissions in New England.

And they worked tirelessly to close Maine Yankee, Connecticut Yankee, Yankee Rowe, Indian Point and other nuclear power plants in the Northeast and throughout the United States.

To the delight of environmental activists, the Northeast has lost more than a handful of nuclear plants in recent years, mostly because it became uneconomical to continue running them (something environmentalists tried hard to ensure).

  • From 1972-1996, the Maine Yankee nuclear power plant was the largest power generator in the state. But environmental activists opposed it from the start an harassed it with an ongoing series of ballot initiative and bills to shut it down. It closed for cost reasons. 
  • From 1972-2014, the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant generated power in Vernon, Vt. Environmentalists worked the entire time to get it closed, and they succeeded even though the plant had been operating safely and had just had its license renewed through 2032. The plant’s closure resulted in an increase in New England carbon emissions as nuclear power was replaced with natural gas. 
  • From 1960-1992, the Yankee Rowe plant operated in Rowe, Mass. It was protested by environmental activists. Its owners shut it down rather than pay for federally mandated testing that was demanded by activists.
  • From 1972-2019, the Pilgrim nuclear power plant operated in Plymouth, Mass. Activists pressed for its closure all along, and the plant owner ultimately shut it down for economic reasons in 2019. Its power generation was replaced by natural gas. Afterwards, predictably, New England carbon emissions increased. 
  • From 1968-1996, the Connecticut Yankee nuclear power plant provided low-carbon power to Connecticut. Environmentalist sought its closure. This plant was cited for safety violations, though the Nuclear Energy Institute says the site of the decommissioned plant is safe enough to turn into farmland. It was closed for cost reasons.
  • From 1962-2021, the Indian Point nuclear power plant generated power in Buchanan, N.Y. Environmental activists challenged the plant’s continued operation, and the State of New York threw up numerous legal obstacles to the plant’s license renewal, making renewal too costly for the owner to pursue. New York carbon emissions increased after Indian Point’s closure, of course. 
  • And then there’s New Hampshire’s Seabrook Station, which was supposed to open in 1974. Environmental activists successfully delayed its opening until 1990. Since it was first proposed in the 1970s, it has been protested continuously by anti-nuclear activists, who still want to shut it down. They successfully prevented the plant’s second reactor from being built. By delaying and shrinking the plant, activists managed to increase New England carbon emissions and prolong the use of oil and coal in New Hampshire.

State subsidies for renewables, which artificially suppress wholesale energy market prices, coupled inexpensive natural gas helped make nuclear power plants less economically viable.

Environmental activists gleefully contributed to nuclear power’s negative economic and regulatory environment by misleading the public and elected officials about nuclear power’s safety and environmental record, pushing to tilt the playing field in favor of renewables, and harassing plant owners with lawsuits and protests. 

It’s nice to see the small group of pro-nuclear environmental activists get credit for being right when the rest of the green movement has been shamefully, dangerously wrong about nuclear power from the start. 

But that’s only a small part of the story. The bigger story is how the environmental movement put itself on the wrong end of one of the biggest fights of its existence and wound up hurting the environment as a result.

And all the while, they sought to delegitimize the activists, policy wonks, industry experts, academics and researchers who told the truth. That’s the story that needs to be told. 

By Jason Sorens

Gov. Chris Sununu and his opponent, Sen. Tom Sherman, have proposed reforms to alleviate New Hampshire’s severe housing shortage. How do those proposals compare, and how effective would they be? A brief overview of each suggests that neither would solve New Hampshire’s housing shortage, but Gov. Sununu’s initiative would be likely to result in more housing construction.

Democratic Sen. Sherman released his housing plan for New Hampshire in July, calling it a longer-term fix than incumbent Republican Gov. Chris Sununu’s “federal band-aid,” the InvestNH Housing Fund approved in May. Of course, InvestNH is not the sum of Gov. Sununu’s housing policy, nor has he yet released a detailed plan for the coming term. Therefore, a direct comparison of the two candidates’ housing policies is imperfect at this time, but we can still assess what is good, bad, and mediocre in each set of proposals: Sherman’s housing plan and Sununu’s InvestNH Housing Fund.

Gov. Sununu’s InvestNH plan

The governor’s InvestNH program consists of $60 million in grants for owners and developers, and $40 million in grants for municipalities. In an ideal world, taxpayer dollars wouldn’t be used to subsidize a private industry at all. Yet government has created housing scarcity by strictly regulating home-building, not in the interest of health or safety, but simply with the explicit goal of preventing new people from living in the area. The obvious solution is to remove the unnecessary regulations that limit residential construction. But those regulations rest at the local level, and legislators have proven reluctant to overrule them with state laws. Using financial resources as incentives to work around or relax local regulations is a compromise that attempts to produce quick results while accepting the political reality that no statewide fix is achievable this year.

Still, if the state is going to subsidize home-building, it had better be done in efficient and effective ways. Grants to municipalities to encourage them to lift regulatory restrictions on new homes might be the most easily justified way of deploying financial resources because they attack the problem at the source: the tangle of local regulations that prevent building.

The InvestNH municipal grants consist of three streams: $30 million in grants to municipal governments on a per-building permit basis, $5 million in grants to assist with regulatory evaluation and redesign, and $5 million to cover the costs of demolition of vacant or dilapidated buildings.

Towns will get $10,000 for every building permit they issue within six months of application for new rental units constructed in projects made up of five or more units. Because of the short timeline, this money is not going to incentivize changes to zoning ordinances. Projects of this size almost always require a variance from the local board of adjustment, so this money mainly works as an incentive for those boards to approve more projects, or at least cooperate to speed them along.

The $5 million will go to municipalities for consulting on their housing needs, reviewing current regulations, and rewriting regulations. The primary goal of requests must be to increase housing stock.

The $60 million for capital grants goes directly to developers and the nonprofit New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority. Only multifamily rental housing is eligible. For projects with 15 or more units, applicants must demonstrate an “affordability commitment,” holding rents below market for lower-income tenants for at least 20% of units.

The main advantage of Sununu’s plan is that the money should indeed incentivize new housing construction in a relatively short time frame. By tying the municipal grant money to the issuance of building permits, Sununu’s plan creates a strong incentive for boards to issue more building permits. The state would, in effect, pay municipalities to issue new building permits.

The bulk of the Sununu plan, $60 million for capital grants to stimulate the construction of multifamily housing, might incentivize developers to go forward with projects that contain a higher percentage of lower-priced units than would have been profitable without the grants. Ordinances that require projects to set aside a certain percentage of units for rent at below-market rates tend to discourage development and lead to less new construction. But this cash incentive might do the opposite. It will be difficult to know, however, whether these projects would have been built anyway.

Paying municipalities to consult on housing needs and review regulations might produce better land use regulations, but that outcome is not guaranteed, and this portion of the plan lacks a strong incentive to achieve the desired result.

The strength of Sununu’s plan – that it is focused on stimulating development in the short term – is also a drawback. It does very little to change the long-term dynamics of repressed supply. It also focuses solely on larger multifamily rental projects, as opposed to single-family starter homes and “missing middle” construction.

Sen. Sherman’s plan

Sen. Sherman’s plan is less detailed, but it has these features:

  1. It adds staff to regional planning commissions and the state’s Office of Planning and Development;
  2. It funds municipal review of local land-use ordinances;
  3. It reviews state-level regulatory hurdles to development;
  4. It assesses under-used state lands for development potential;
  5. It promotes model zoning ordinance elements;
  6. It subsidizes loans for water, sewer, and transit infrastructure;
  7. It creates an incentive program for municipalities to adopt more pro-housing ordinances;
  8. It increases community development tax credits;
  9. It increases the affordable housing fund;
  10. It creates a historic rehabilitation tax credit;
  11. It doubles funding for contractor job training.

Sherman touts the fact that his plan features permanent programs rather than a one-time infusion of money. This might not be quite fair to Sununu, since the InvestNH program came out of a unique opportunity to spend federal grants, and the governor has strongly supported legislation that offered some structural changes, including a “housing champion program” that would reward municipalities for changing their ordinances to allow more housing density. Still, Sherman’s plan is intended to be a comprehensive menu of permanent policy changes. The question is whether they would achieve the intended goal of stimulating the construction of more housing.

Some of Sherman’s ideas can be expected to have a greater impact than others. The strongest part of Sherman’s plan is the proposal to tie increases in state transportation and environmental funding to “the adoption of zoning or infrastructure that allows reasonable opportunities for housing.”

Gov. Sununu supported a similar housing champion program that was initially included in Senate Bill 400 this year, but that part of the bill did not pass. Depending on how such a program is designed, it could have considerable long-term impact. A well-designed program will reward municipalities for actual housing unit creation as well as regulatory changes, and will reward regulatory changes that allow for single-family and “missing middle” in addition to statute-defined “workforce housing” (buildings of five units or more).

Expanding sewer access helps the environment and allows more housing and commercial density. It’s unclear how important an obstacle it is to new construction, but it could be a factor.

Sen. Sherman’s proposal for a state job training fund for the construction trades is not likely to relieve the shortage of skilled construction labor, as the funds will surely be a drop in the bucket compared to what the private sector already spends on training, and training is rarely the decisive hurdle discouraging someone from entering a manual-labor occupation.

The CDFA tax credit, which Sen. Sherman would expand, is widely alleged to favor politically connected businesses and nonprofits and doesn’t focus on housing.

The rest of Sen. Sherman’s plan would do little to stimulate new housing development. The bulk of the senator’s plan would fund studies and reviews, or give municipalities and planning commissions additional financial resources that are not tied to the issuance of new building permits or the passage of new, housing-friendly ordinances.

Whereas most of Gov. Sununu’s plan is focused on directly financing new housing construction, most of Sen. Sherman’s plan is focused on providing additional financial resources to local governments, planning commissions, and construction industry labor.

Overall, Gov. Sununu’s plan contains stronger immediate incentives for developers to propose multi-family housing, and for municipalities to issue new permits. Sen. Sherman’s plan also contains some of these incentives, but until funding details are available, it’s impossible to know how much of an impact they will have. Setting up a permanent housing champion program, as both candidates appear to support, would have the potential to change the game.

It’s worth noting that neither candidate is talking about state preemption of local regulation. Zoning preemption bills are becoming more common, and are generating more attention, in the Legislature. One nearly passed the House this year (House Bill 1177, sponsored by Rep. Ivy Vann, to legalize fourplexes wherever water and sewer are available), and several others were proposed.

With both candidates for governor backing programs to incentivize local governments to allow more housing, look for similar proposals to be introduced in the Legislature next year. But if those incentives fail to produce meaningful changes in local regulations, and the state’s severe housing shortage continues to frustrate voters, the pressure for direct preemption of local regulatory barriers will continue to build.

Dr. Jason Sorens is director of the Center for Ethics in Society at St. Anselm College.

Download a pdf copy of this analysis: Gubernatorial Candidates Housing Plans

On August 23, a handful of state laws crafted to address New Hampshire’s housing shortage take effect. Though the big reforms were left on the Legislature’s cutting room floor, these modest changes might prove helpful. 

The splashiest change, which might prompt some warrant articles next spring, applies zoning exemptions carved out for 55+ communities to workforce housing as well. 

Most of the changes are more technical fixes to ensure that municipalities don’t stick proposed developments in a legal limbo simply by delaying or refusing to act on applications. 

These changes amount to mostly modest improvements in the system that will make it slightly less antagonistic to new housing construction. But with home prices and rents remaining at record levels, pressure to pass more powerful reforms is likely to prompt more legislation next year. 

The new laws will:

  • Require the Office of Planning and Development to create and offer training to planning and zoning boards. The initial idea was to require board member training, but that was dropped in favor of making the training available at no cost to board members. 
  • Require that any fee imposed by a local land use board be published “in a location accessible to the public during normal business hours.” Any fee not published at the time an application is submitted shall be waived. 
  • Require that by July 1, 2023, any local incentive established for housing older persons “shall be deemed applicable to workforce housing development.” Many communities exempt 55+ communities from certain zoning requirements. The idea is to create exemptions that allow housing to be built only for people who don’t have school-age children. This change would apply those restrictions to workforce housing as well. 
  • Require that local land use boards issue a final written decision for all applications, and require those decisions to “include specific written findings of fact that support the decision.” Failure to offer specific, written findings of fact would be grounds for automatic reversal by the Superior Court.
  • Require zoning boards of adjustment to issue a final decision on an application within 90 days of receiving the application. 
  • Require planning boards to determine whether submitted applications are complete at the next regularly scheduled meeting, or within 30 days after receiving the application. Boards must then act on an application within 65 days of determining that it’s complete.
  • Require selectmen or city councils to certify approval of a plat if the planning board fails to act within the allotted time. Failure of selectmen or city councils to act will constitute grounds for the Superior Court to act if petitioned to do so by the applicant.
  • Allow municipalities to acquire land for use as workforce housing, but not by eminent domain.
  • Allow municipalities to lease basements, ground and second floors of public buildings for residential use, negotiate the sale or lease of property for residential use, and acquire, improve, operate, maintain or promote residential developments “aimed at increasing the available housing stock within the municipality.”

New Hampshire collected a record $430.1 million budget surplus in the 2022 fiscal year, which ended June 30th. Most of it is already gone. 

From January to June, legislators spent $261.7 million — or 60% — of the surplus.

For context, the amount of new spending in 2022 was just a bit larger than the $257.8 million stored in the state’s Rainy Day Fund (also a record).

The $430.1 million surplus is not what the state saved in the last fiscal year. It’s the amount by which state revenues exceeded budgeted spending. Lawmakers didn’t save even half of it.

Legislators passed 29 bills this year that appropriated money from the state budget surplus, according to a tally compiled by the Office of the Legislative Budget Assistant (see the list here: Appropriation Bills 6-30-22). 

The spending ranged from $60,000 over two years to fight cyanobacteria blooms to $71.1 million over two years to fund road and bridge work as well as body and dashboard cameras for law enforcement.

The next largest allocation came from House Bill 1587, which spent $42.9 million to increase retirement pay for 1,824 police officers and firefighters.

Another $21 million was put toward funding a dental benefit for Medicaid recipients, and $9.4 million went toward construction of a legislative parking garage.

Smaller items included $150,000 for a Hampton Beach pier feasibility study and $250,000 in capital improvement funds for state fairs and agricultural fairs.

The total appropriations of $261.7 million, per the Legislative Budget Assistant’s count, does not include the effects of tax law revisions approved this year.

The Office of Legislative Budget Assistant counts tax cuts as revenue reductions based on a simple static scoring of tax rate changes. We did not include these in the spending tally because (a) they aren’t spending, and (b) past calculations have been wildly off. 

For example, the LBA in 2017 projected that business tax cuts passed that year would reduce state revenues by $11 million. Instead, business tax revenues shot up, ending the year $151.6 million over budget rather than $11 million under budget.

The LBA estimated a total revenue reduction of $59.5 million through fiscal year 2024 due to tax law changes. 

Of those revenue reductions, $17.5 million through FY 2024 is projected to come from a tiny reduction in the Business Profits Tax. That’s the type of projection that has proven incorrect in the past.

The remaining $42 million, however, represents losses through FY 2024 that come from a change in the way the state requires businesses to apportion net operating losses. This projected loss is more likely to materialize because it eliminates what is effectively a double taxation of business.

If this $42 million is included, then legislators can be said to have reduced the budget surplus by $303.7 million.

That would leave only $126.4 million of the $430.1 million surplus in state coffers. 

The total could be even lower, as the LBA was unable to determine a cost for a few bills. 

This is not to condemn all of this spending as wasteful or unnecessary. Financing delayed bridge repairs, for example, can be a very good use of unexpected revenues. The spending was focused on one-time uses that won’t be written into the baseline budget going forward, which was also responsible. 

But the spending is haphazard, with money thrown to various projects that proved politically popular, rather than focused on, say, a priority list of state needs. 

With a 424-member legislative body, it might be unfair to expect a more focused approach to spending a massive one-time windfall. But the chaotic nature of governing with such a large Legislature doesn’t negate the wisdom of trying to impose a strategic focus on state spending.

In May, we recommended dedicating a large portion of the surplus to cover unfunded state pension liabilities, which would pay down an existing state obligation and save taxpayers money in the long run. That’s the kind of strategic planning that didn’t shape this $261.7 million in spending.  

However, the record $257.8 million Rainy Day Fund was the result of strategic planning, and it remains untouched. Legislators deserve credit for filling that fund and leaving it alone. As recently as 2014, the Rainy Day Fund held just $9.3 million.

The current fiscal year started in July, and although revenues were $13.9 million above budget, they were $4.2 million lower than last July.

The next Legislature needs to keep a careful watch on revenues. If another surplus materializes, it would be wise to have a priority list of state needs ready to go. If one doesn’t materialize, it might not take long to burn through what’s left of 2022’s record windfall.

If you planned to start a new enterprise and hire someone to run it, you’d probably avoid applicants who racked up disastrous safety records and massive financial deficits on their way to being investigated and placed under remedial safety orders by the feds.

The New Hampshire Department of Transportation, though, has tapped an operator with all of those problems to run its planned Manchester-Boston commuter rail line.

Despite steep declines in commuter rail ridership, the rise of remote work and the promise of driverless cars, the state is still moving forward with plans to build a commuter rail line to Boston. (The state in 2020 approved $5.4 million in federal funds to plan the line.) Those plans name the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA) as the operator of the service.

Sure, the MBTA has decades of experience running commuter rail. But then, the U.S. Postal Service has decades of experience delivering mail, too. 

A quick (and not comprehensive) review of the MBTA’s recent troubles should be enough to eliminate the agency as a suitable commuter rail partner for New Hampshire. A list of just some of the recent safety issues includes:

Years of poor management and questionable spending priorities have left the MBTA with inadequately trained staff, decaying infrastructure, and antiquated management systems. 

The FTA’s investigation found, to cite one example, that the authority uses a paper-based record-keeping system and has not yet transitioned to storing its records digitally. This is in 2022. 

The justification for building a costly commuter rail line from Boston into New Hampshire is evaporating rapidly, as we’ve documented here and here. 

But even if one could build a case for some scaled-down version of commuter rail, the case for letting the MBTA run it is nonexistent. 

No organization with such a dismal performance record should be given additional responsibilities, much less trusted with the lives of Granite State commuters. 

Government energy plans too often focus on replacing consumers’ choices with those of government planners, regardless of the impact on consumers. New Hampshire’s 10 Year Energy Strategy goes in the other direction. It puts consumers first. 

The new strategy is little changed from the 2018 version. Its top priorities are shrunk from 11 to 10, with “cost-effective energy policies” the primary goal, followed by securing “a reliable, and resilient energy system.”

The difference really is more of emphasis. The new version articulates a clearer free-market vision for state energy policy. 

The strategy rejects government mandates and subsidies except in limited, temporary circumstances. Instead, it articulates a strong rationale for creating an open and competitive energy marketplace in which competition generates technological advances while driving down prices.

It’s an unapologetically pro-market, pro-consumer plan. 

Noting the state’s extremely high energy costs, the strategy makes addressing those costs “a critical goal for New Hampshire.”

“Expensive energy–or pursuing policies that raise the cost of energy–directly and negatively impacts New Hampshire families and businesses and the quality of life in our state. As such, the primary goal of this Strategy is to pursue cost-effective energy policies which is even more important in this time of record energy prices and high inflation.”

The strategy rejects the idea that politicians should manipulate energy markets to benefit technologies they prefer.   

“Policy makers should not enact any new mandates that place additional burdens on ratepayers or taxpayers,” it states.

The state and consumers would be made worse off if politicians tried to second-guess the market, it goes on to explain.

“While some states may attempt to drive innovation through mandates and subsidization, New Hampshire will never win a battle of subsidies,” the strategy asserts. “Instead, our state should enable creativity and entrepreneurial endeavors by refraining from picking winners and losers among energy technologies. New Hampshire can foster a sustainable and dynamic energy economy by ensuring a favorable regulatory environment for new technologies to flourish, not a regulatory and statutory environment based on favoritism.”

Consistent with that philosophy, the strategy removes an item from the previous plan’s top goals. Gone is the goal to:

“Maximize the economic lifespan of existing resources while integrating new entrants on a levelized basis.”

That old goal is inconsistent with the new plan’s vision that “a status quo that uses preferential policy to allow incumbents—of any technology type—to freeze out competition should be unacceptable.”

The strategy’s top ten priorities are:

1. Prioritize cost-effective energy policies.

2. Ensure a secure, reliable, and resilient energy system.

3. Adopt all-resource energy strategies and minimize government barriers to innovation. 

4. Achieve cost-effective energy savings.

5. Achieve environmental protection that is cost-effective and enables economic growth. 

6. Government intervention in energy markets should be limited, justifiable, and technology-neutral.

7. Support a robust, market-selection of cost-effective energy resources.

8. Generate in-state economic activity without reliance on permanent subsidization of energy.

9. Protect New Hampshire’s interests in regional energy matters.

10. Ensure that appropriate energy infrastructure is able to be sited while incorporating input and guidance from stakeholders.

The additional, more forceful emphasis on market competition is a welcome addition to this version of the state’s energy strategy. But as with the previous version, the question is how much influence it will have with legislators. 

These policy frameworks can help to guide administrations, but legislators tend to do what they want. If constituents demand subsidies for the timber industry, the timber industry will probably get subsidies. Still, it’s encouraging to see the state make so strong a statement in favor of markets, competition, and consumer choice.  

New Hampshire has the top two hottest housing markets in the country, as rated by real estate search website realtor.com. These ratings should be taken with a grain of salt, as they’re based in part on search queries on a single listings website. But even if the rankings are an accurate representation of the market, that’s not really great news for Granite Staters, as it’s further confirmation that the state suffers from a severe housing shortage.

Having the “hottest housing market” based on realtor.com‘s system doesn’t mean your community is the most desirable in the country. It’s a proxy to measure the intensity of the housing market. Demand is just one side of the coin. Supply is the other, and that’s a big reason why New Hampshire has claimed the top two spots on the list. 

The demand side of the realtor.com rankings is based on unique viewers per property on that website only (which is a serious limitation). Concord tops the list at 3.2 views per property. Manchester is second at 2.6. 

The proxy for the supply side of the ranking is based on how long homes stay on the market. Median time spent on the market in Concord is 13 days, according to the site. For Manchester it’s 12 days. 

Rochester, N.Y., has a median time on the market of 12 days, making it the only other community in the site’s list of top 20 hottest markets that is close to the Concord and Manchester numbers.

Such a short time spent on the market indicates not just high demand, but an extremely low supply. A balanced market is considered one that has at least six months of inventory. It would take less than a month to sell every home on the market in New Hampshire, according to the New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority.

The realtor.com ranking shows Concord and Manchester to be in the top four communities for price, behind two other New England metropolitan areas. That’s another sign that our supply is extremely low.

The top median listing prices were Portland, Maine, at $549,000, Burlington, Vt., at $484,000, Manchester at $478,000, and Concord at $457,000. 

Concord and Manchester had higher median asking prices than Worcester, Mass., Springfield, Mass., Hartford, Conn., and New Haven, Conn. 

A housing growth map published this week by Axios helps illustrate the underlying supply problem. It shows the percent change in housing units from last July to this July, by county.

Only three counties in New England experienced at least a 1% increase in housing units in the last year. Grafton County was the only one in the Granite State.  

The New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority’s annual Housing Market report, released last month, again noted that it “would take at least 20,000 housing units to achieve a balanced market” in the state.

New Hampshire is indeed a highly desirable place to live. The combination of remote work and the pandemic have boosted demand for homes in the Granite State. With remote work now a permanent and growing feature of white collar employment, and blue state refugees seeking low-tax jurisdictions from which to live and work, demand for homes in New Hampshire is likely to remain elevated for years. 

But it’s important for policymakers and voters to understand that this is not the cause of New Hampshire’s housing shortage or high prices. Housing prices in the state have risen steadily since 2012. The recent bump in demand just adds to the previously existing imbalance. 

New Hampshire was in a housing shortage long before the pandemic. That shortage will remain, as will the resulting high prices, until supply is increased enough to balance demand. 

Being labeled home to the nation’s “hottest housing market” would be nice if that term measured demand only. In reality, it’s further confirmation that we don’t have enough housing.

IRS migration data show that “taxpayers prefer to move to states with lower tax burdens and away from states with higher tax burdens,” an analysis from the National Taxpayers Union shows. (The data are from tax returns received in 2019 and 2020.)

“Right from the start, the three states losing the most taxpayers and income – New York, California, and Illinois – are the three largest high-tax states. The top two states gaining taxpayers and income, Florida and Texas, are the two largest low-tax states (Arizona, though it does not have this reputation to the same extent, still enjoys a below-average tax burden).”

“The top ten states gaining taxpayers acquired a net total of 321,000 households and $53 billion in AGI [Adjusted Gross Income]. On the other hand, the top ten states losing taxpayer dollars lost a net total of nearly 367,000 households and $58 billion in AGI.

“All told, the top ten states losing the most income had a weighted average of about the 11th-highest tax burden in the country that year, according to Tax Foundation statistics. The top ten states gaining the most income, on the other hand, had a weighted average of about the 38th-highest (or the 12th-lowest) tax burden in the country.”

The overall trend held when states were ranked for total tax burden and property and income tax rates.

“Additionally, states with distinct advantages to their tax systems tend to gain taxpayers. Florida, Nevada, Texas, and Tennessee all have no individual income tax and all appear in the top 10 states gaining taxpayers. Meanwhile, every state in the top ten tax migration losers levies an individual income or sales tax.”

No-income-tax states Nevada, New Hampshire and Wyoming, and states without a sales tax (Montana, New Hampshire, and Delaware) make the top-ten list after adjusting for population size.

“The IRS tax migration data showcases the sharp distinctions between states losing and gaining taxpayers,” the NTU analysis concludes. 

“States gaining taxpayers tend to place less of an emphasis on draining the wealth of their taxpayers into state coffers, instead allowing taxpayers more freedom with what they do with their own money. Taxes are an important factor that taxpayers consider when deciding where to live.”