EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

November 4, 2013

Study sees N.H. economy among nation's best

Concerns include housing and student debt

By John Toole
jtoole@eagletribune.com

---- — A new study concludes New Hampshire’s economy ranks among the best for states, but flags some areas of concern for policymakers.

“Many of the indicators where New Hampshire excels — including homeownership rates, education levels, and size of the science and engineering workforce — reflect past or current conditions,” the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies said. “On the other hand, in more ‘future-oriented’ measurements — average student debt, the change in the 35- to 44-year-old share of the population, housing costs, and the rate of college-going among high school graduates — New Hampshire fares quite poorly.”

Those also matter for economic success, the center said.

“These measures are directly linked to the state’s ability to attract and retain young people and arm them with the skills needed to compete for good jobs in coming years, and thus are of vital importance to the future of the state’s economy and quality of life,” the study said.

The Business and Industry Association paid for the study.

In an analysis of broad economic indicators such as education, fiscal policy, resources and energy, New Hampshire ranked 11th overall.

Regionally it lagged Massachusetts, which ranked eighth, but ahead of Vermont at 24 and Maine at 38.

New Hampshire also did well against four states — North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia — deemed “competitor” states. Only Virginia ranked ahead of New Hampshire at No. 9.

But the study put New Hampshire near the bottom for many measures of business costs, including industrial electric prices, corporate tax rate, health-care costs and land use restrictions.

The study asked leaders to ponder a key question about New Hampshire’s overall ranking.

“What policies and trends (current and/or past) helped drive this advantage, and what new policies might be necessary to preserve or even build on it?” the report said.

It also asked them to consider how New Hampshire could do better.

“Where would investments — in human capital, infrastructure, fiscal policy, and other areas — yield the highest return?” it asked.

Rep. John Sedensky, R-Hampstead, serves on a House committee that oversees labor issues.

He acknowledged that it is worrisome young people may be choosing to leave New Hampshire for other states.

“We lose a lot of our own students,” he said. “They go other places for employment.”

Rep. Kevin St. James, R-Kingston, who also serves on the panel, said that’s true.

“That is a problem,” he said. “We’re not retaining our college graduates.”

St. James also is concerned students are leaving the state to go to college because of high tuition cost at the University of New Hampshire.

“UNH is among the highest for in-state tuition in the country,” he said.

Sedensky is worried that too much government spending, driven by public employee unions, is harmful to the economy, too.

“Business doesn’t want to come into an area like that and grow,” he said.

“A lot of it has to do with the Legislature not putting its foot down to stop spending,” Sedensky said.

St. James said the House labor panel will be taking a look at what can be done to lower worker compensation costs in New Hampshire, another deterrent to business.

He said he was encouraged the study rated New Hampshire’s overall economy among the best in the nation.

“But that doesn’t mean we can sit back and be complacent,” St. James said.

The study found New Hampshire poorly ranked in several measures of workforce housing.

“New Hampshire has high housing costs,” said Elissa Margolin, director of Housing Action NH. “The truth is for low wage earners, we lack 26,000 affordable homes.”

The good news is that the Business and Industry Association has long understood the lack of workforce housing is an impediment to economic development, she said.

The study comes as lawmakers are preparing bills for the next session that include establishing a state economic development plan and an economic development fund.