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Friday, November 18, 2011

Reporters roundtable discussion: What is the New Hampshire "advantage?"

Editor's Note: All this week The Nashua Telegraph examined the New Hampshire "advantage." Does it exist? What is it? Is it in peril?

The series culminated Thursday morning with a live forum on the status of the New Hampshire's business climate co-sponsored by the Greater Nashua Chamber of Commerce featuring prominent state leaders.

On Thursday afternoon, the Telegraph reporters who wrote the series conducted a live on online discussion to share the insights they gained during their research.

Following is a running transcript of that discussion.

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The reporters participating in today's live discussion are: Maryalice Gill, who wrote a story about the NH Primary; Michael Brindley, who wrote a story about the state's business climate; Cameron Kittle, who wrote about access and cost of higher education; Patrick Meighan, who wrote about the state's crime rates; Albert McKeon, who wrote about state laws and freedoms; Jake Berry, who wrote about the state's tax structure.

Moderator:

Please tell us where the NH Advantage stands in each of the topics you wrote about.

Albert McKeon:

New Hampshire is considered one of the leading states in preserving and promoting individual liberties.

Libertarians applaud the state's liberal gun laws, acceptance of gay marriage, and the fact that an adult can drive without a seatbelt.

Michael Brindley:

New Hampshire is in a good place as far as business climate.

The 2011 U.S. Business Tax Climate report placed New Hampshire seventh.

The low tax burden, specifically the lack of a sales tax or income tax, is also attractive to new businesses. But there is more that can be done to make it easier to start-up new businesses here in the state, business leaders say.

There is work being done now that could help create a one-stop-shopping site where prospective business owners can get the forms they need to get the ball rolling.

Jake Berry:

In regard to taxes, there's no clear answer to that question.

The Granite's tax structure is pretty unique; New Hampshire is one of only two states in the country without a statewide income or sales tax.

Alaska is the other, and it has a reservoir of oil revenues that makes it different all together.

But, the question is, does the lack of an income and sales tax contribute or take away from the New Hampshire advantage, and the answers are mixed.

Some say the lack of broad-based taxes helps to lure businesses to the state with the promise of little tax burden. But others contend that the state's heavy reliance on the property tax creates a disadvantage for low and middle class residents.

Cameron Kittle:

The future of higher education in New Hampshire is uncertain. Huge cuts by the Legislature this summer have caused hundreds of layoffs and increased tuition at public colleges and universities, which several university presidents called "unsustainable."

The impact on higher education is more widespread than we think. Our "New Hampshire Advantage" is based on many things, but several of them -- low crime rate, the healthiest state in the nation, relatively low unemployment – are directly tied to the fact that we’re a highly educated state.

Albert McKeon:

There is fear among libertarians that social conservatives will try to repeal gay marriage.

There's some discussion in the State House about the issue, but the guns-and-butter item that is big on the radar for next year is allowing people to carry a firearm without a permit. The law would criminally penalize anyone who challenges that person's right to carry the firearm.

Jake Berry:

This really interests me, AL. How is this legislation being received by non-libertarians?

Michael Brindley:

The New Hampshire Advantage means different things to different people. For some, it is simply quality of life. For others, it is a low tax burden, being host to the first-in-the-nation primary.

The one aspect of it that appears to be most in jeopardy is the state's highly-educated workforce.

Maryalice Gill:

The New Hampshire first-in-the-nation primary has been a long standing tradition since 1952 but each year other states, this year Florida and Nevada, have tried to get ahead of us by scheduling their respective contests first.

Our state law says New Hampshire must hold its primary at least seven days prior to any other state’s similar contest, and Sec. of State Bill Gardner continues to defend it, even if our primary must be in December--as he threatened this year.

Though competing states say our mostly white, mostly rich makeup is not representative of the U.S., New Hampshire's small size (candidates can visit the rural and urban areas of the country quickly and speak to different types of constituent ), and our intense voter participation (we often have the highest voter primary turnout rate in the country), are two factors that make New Hampshire the prime place to determine "winners" early on in the race, and one in which candidates also defend our position.

Albert McKeon:

Libertarians mostly favor the idea of carrying a gun without permit or challenge.

They say most people who live in free societies are responsible.

The law wouldn't grant this "right" to those who are in jail or prison, or those who have been deemed mentally disturbed through institutionalization.

Moderator:

Question for Kittle: So the people who run the higher education system say tuition increases are unsustainable. Did they give any indication tuition would ever go down?

Michael Brindley:

Al, do you know if any other states allow for people to carry guns without a permit?

Jake Berry:

Unfortunately, the loss of a highly-educated workforce is no side issue, right, Mike? Down the road, that could heavily effect all these other issues we've addressed, from the business climate to public safety, etc.

Patrick Meighan:

To MaryAlice: I would say the voter turnout is so high because it's the first primary. Voters here feel they can have an impact on who carries the banner for their party, more so than if the state was lumped in with other primaries.

Cameron Kittle:

President Huddleston at UNH said a tuition decrease was "not impossible" but it seemed unlikely.

Rather than touting lower tuition, most education officials talked about flexibility in higher education today, especially with faster degree programs and online courses.

Patrick Meighan:

Flexibility might be a mask to cover a push for higher tuition. Parents and students in or entering colleges may be justified in harboring some suspicion.

Albert McKeon:

To Mike: Alaska, Arizona, Vermont and Wyoming, according to quick research, are the only states that allow carrying a handgun without a permit.

Jake Berry:

I wonder if those states have a higher rate of gun-related incidents

Cameron Kittle:

You're right, Jake. If the cuts to higher education continue, it can have a snowball effect.

Fewer students choosing colleges in New Hampshire means fewer citizens with college degrees. That could mean fewer new businesses in New Hampshire or fewer skilled workers. If something doesn't change, the state could be facing big problems over the next decade.

Moderator:

Question for Jake: Do you think an income tax would kill the perception of a NH Advantage?

Albert McKeon:

Cam: Have universities and colleges acknowledged that tuition hikes occurred before the recession and state budget cuts?

Michael Brindley:

Most definitely, Jake. Fred Kocher, president of the NH High Tech Council, said plans are in the works for a business-education round table discussion. Chris Williams, president of the Greater Nashua Chamber of Commerce, voiced his concerns about the cuts to higher education this morning, as well.

Maryalice Gill:

Andy Smith, Director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center said the same thing, that our voter participation could be cyclical. But if you look at the voter turnout rates from 2008 -- http://elections.gmu.edu/Turnout_2008P.html -- the states that fall first don't touch the 53.6% participation rate with which NH voters went to the polls on Jan. 8. Iowa's caucus, held Jan. 3 had 16.1% participation, Michigan's primary, Jan. 15, saw 20% participation, Nevada's caucus held Jan. 19 had 9.7 % participation. So there's more to it than being at the beginning of the primary season. NH voters consider politics our "sport."

Jake Berry:

Certainly, I think, an income tax, or other broad-based tax would change the perception people have of the New Hampshire Advantage, and it would force many in the state to think differently about what we have to offer.

Whether it would, in a real, tangible way, positively or negatively impact businesses and taxpayers is up for debate.

Moderator:

Question for Mike: Those talking about higher education are well intentioned, do you think anything will actually change as a result of these talks and "concerns."

Cameron Kittle:

Yes, Al. Tuition has skyrocketed over the past 30 years.

President Huddleston at UNH said tuition has increased so much more in the past 30 years in comparison to family income that the gap keeps him up at night.

So rising tuition cost is nothing new, but this year was an unprecedented jump. UNH raised tuition about 8 or 9 percent this year compared to 2 or 3 percent in the past several years.

Jake Berry:

This income tax question is a debate they'll be having at the Statehouse next year. Republican leadership in the House of Representatives have proposed legislation that, if passed, would amend the Constitution to prohibit a statewide income tax. It could come up in January.

Michael Brindley:

Time will tell. Business owners are often the ones with the most influence, so if they start to see a decline in the quality of the work force, I don't doubt they will take measures to make those concerns heard in Concord.

Cameron Kittle:

Tom Horgan, president of the New Hampshire College and University Council, said the business community needs to be a leading voice to help change the cuts to higher education.

Cameron Kittle:

He said when $4 million in scholarships were cut by the state, the business community was "silent," and that's a big issue for the future of the state's educated workforce.

Jake Berry:

The question of higher education seems particularly relevant here as New Hampshire and most of the other New England states are seeing a flight of their young adult population anyway.

Studies have shown all six New England states rate among the country's worst in their ability to retain young families.

Albert McKeon:

Jake, That is a relevant question.

Federal stats from 2010 show Alaska and Vermont had a firearm-related murder rate lower than the national rate, per 100,000 of the population. But it was higher than the national rate in Arizona and Wyoming.

Michael Brindley:

One of the advantages that came up during my reporting was NH's representatives government. Michael Bergeron, who works for the state to recruit new businesses, said NH's 400+ volunteer legislature provides a sense of stability and certainty, in that no major changes could get through without a thorough and public review, particularly with the unique Executive Council as another check.

Jake Berry:

That's an interesting point, Mike. In my research, I encountered people who were critical of the setup of the state government because it, in effect, makes it difficult for any real change, such as a broad-based tax.

Albert McKeon:

Maryalice, Charlie Arlinghaus of Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy says the two NASCAR races held annually at Loudon make the state more money than the primary does.

It appears that the First in the Nation Primary status is more a right to boast and hold onto history than it does offer any other advantage.

Michael Brindley:

It probably comes down to perspective, Jake. That difficulty of imposing real or significant change could be seen as an advantage for new businesses to the state, who would have to make a significant investment in relocating and want some assurance they or their employees not going to levied with new taxes as soon as they move in.

Albert McKeon:

A question to all the reporters: What new fact did you learn in researching your stories?

Jake Berry:

Certainly, that is the other side of the argument, Mike. And many business leaders and legislators feel strongly about that, hence the proposed Constitutional amendment to ban an income tax.

Jake Berry:

It will be interesting to see where that goes.

Moderator:

Studies show that workers with a bachelor's degree earn about $1 million more over the course of their working career than people with only a high school education. However, graduating from college with $30,000 or more in debt puts off economic freedom into middle age.

Maryalice, you are a recent college graduate, without going into specific amounts of debt, how long do you think it will take you to pay off your loans?

Patrick Meighan:

My suspicion was confirmed: Any "advantage" disappears if you're a person of color. The state has one of the nation's highest rates for incarcerating Latinos and African-Americans.

Cameron Kittle:

I didn't know New Hampshire was in such trouble when it comes to higher education.

The cuts this summer were a huge factor, but there are so many other contributing elements as well. An aging population, rising student debt levels, fewer scholarship dollars, flatlining family income, increasing tuition costs...all signs point to a difficult future for higher education in New Hampshire.

Maryalice Gill:

If you count value at the presidential election however, New Hampshire's small size typically sends just a dozen or so delegates, so without being first-in-the-nation we would hold far less weight as a state come election time.

First-in-the-nation makes our state significant to the presidential race because the media and the candidates spend time in our state because of its tradition of vetting candidates who will come in first (or second, as Clinton, Bush, and Obama all finished in their respective NH primaries). States look to NH voters to weed out weak candidates from the beginning, which allows us to contribute to the race more so than our delegate numbers ever could.

Jake Berry:

I found it interesting to note, that although New Hampshire has one of the country's lowest tax burdens, there is not necessarily a direct correlation between lack of broad-based taxes and low tax burden in the other states around the country.

Residents in some states, including Alaska that have no sales and income taxes pay among the highest portion of their income to taxes.

Albert McKeon:

Patrick, That's an alarming stat. Any movement by forces outside of New Hampshire to address that?

I discovered that each June, the New Hampshire Highway Safety Agency sends observers to dozens of spots along busy roadways all over the state to count how many drivers and front-seat passengers are wearing seatbelts.

This year, they found that 70 percent of drivers and passengers wore a seat belt.

Maryalice Gill:

Especially after attending a private college in Massachusetts, I'm looking at at least 10-15 years in debt, depending on how I group my student loans.

Cameron Kittle:

That also brings up an interesting point, Maryalice. Those expensive, selective and highly sought-after private colleges in New England only contribute to rising tuition in New Hampshire.

Jake Berry:

Maryalice: In addition to weeding out the weak candidates, New Hampshire voters have launched many lesser known candidates into the national spotlight, including some who landed in the Oval Office, like President Clinton.

Michael Brindley:

Most interesting for me was to hear from a company, Resonetics in Nashua, that actually left money on the table in its offer to relocate to Mass and chose to stay in NH primarily because of the personal touch. The CEO said the ground-up support to keep his business here was what made the difference.

Patrick Meighan:

Prosecutors and defense attorneys haven't done an especially good job of tracking fairness in sentencing. It's a topic I plan to examine more closely. Anecdotally, judges cut breaks for defendants willing to put themselves into drug treatment programs. The Catch 22 is that such programs cost money, and the poorer you are the less likely you'll be able to afford entering treatment.

Jake Berry:

Interesting, Mike. Did the CEO of Resonetics talk at all about the tax structure and whether that contributed to his decision?

Patrick Meighan:

I wonder how many newer N.H. residents see value in having the first primary? To many, it's just annoying to see politicians flock to the state every four years.

Maryalice Gill:

It's a scary prospect. There are millions like me though. And tuition costs are only getting worse each year. I studied abroad in England for a year while I was in college and their tuition costs come nowhere near to what U.S. students pay.

Albert McKeon:

Maryalice and Jake, Indeed NH's level of scrutiny and choosing "Comeback Kids" such as Clinton give this state a unique position in the U.S., a position that arguably almost anyone doesn't want to relinquish, especially journalists who can pose tough questions.

But, of course, any other state, especially any other small state, could make the same argument.

Mike, Can the "No new tax" pledge withstand another several decades?

Jake Berry:

I'll step in here, Al, if you don't mind.

Michael Brindley:

Jake, he didn't want to get into specifics, only that it would have saved him money in the short-term to move, but said that in the long-term, it could cost him employees and resources. The company draws many of its employees from abroad and said NH has a big draw in that aspect.

Maryalice Gill:

That's a good point, Al. The media does love covering New Hampshire first, but it also comes back to our small size, the ability to see candidates talk to small business owners and farmers in three hours' time. Plus media outlets have been covering first-in-the-nation NH more than half a century. They know all the spots to go to cover candidates, the best diners and the best Main Street hangouts for photos. Smith called New Hampshire "a prepackaged campaign," and that counts for our political activists, too.

Jake Berry:

Support for "The Pledge," and broad-based taxes as a whole seem to ebb and flow over the years. In the late 1990s, the legislature came relatively close to passing an income tax until then Gov. Jeanne Shaheen threatened a veto. Now here we are 10 years later, there is no real discussion about implementing a tax, and the focus is instead on amending the Constitution to ban such a tax.

Public opinion seems to change frequently, but The Pledge has remained.

Cameron Kittle:

Those lower costs for students abroad are largely impacted by those countries and their prioritizaton of education. A friend of mine in England has much lower tuition, but his family pays much higher taxes as well.

When it comes down to it, significant change in education is best served by more funding from the state and federal government. We need to accept a higher burden ourselves to lower tuition for everyone.

New Hampshire was lowest in the country in state contributions to the public higher education system, even before the huge cuts this summer.

Jake Berry:

That brings up another key point in the debate over taxes, Cam. While proponents of the current system point out that New Hampshire taxpayers pay one of the lowest rates in the country, that also means that the government ranks among the lowest for tax revenues raised, meaning there's not as much money to spend on things like higher education.

Maryalice Gill:

Pat (or Cam) -- Did you come across specific data on how higher education costs influence NH's high crime rate? It would be interesting to see numbers on how crime rate has increased over the last 5 years in NH as compared to the rise in higher education costs.

Cameron Kittle:

It's true, Jake. Everyone hates higher taxes, but they all want better services, like education. Where do they expect the money to come from?

It's a hard sell, but for real change to happen, there needs to be a collective effort and a collective sacrifice to restore the "New Hampshire Advantage."

Jake Berry:

Maryalice, did you get a sense in your reporting of whether New Hampshire will realistically be able to maintain its first in the nation status? Or will Florida and the other states eventually make it a memory?

Patrick Meighan:

I didn't see anyone make a direct correlation between higher education and crime. But the connection between crime and demographics -- particularly income levels -- is strong, as it is everywhere. There is more crime in inner-cities, where more poor people live. And more minorities tend to be poor, even in a state with a relatively low minority population.

Cameron Kittle:

I didn't come across any specific data relating crime rates and tuition costs, Maryalice.

The people I talked to seemed more of the idea that regardless of data, highly educated citizens commit less crimes and therefore would keep the crime rate low.

Moderator:

The nation looks to NH for its political coverage. People rely on us to vet the candidates. Our friends at PolitiFact said reporters from New Hampshire are of the highest quality in the nation. They attributed this in part to our access and tradition of covering presidential politics with a critical eye.

Maryalice Gill:

It's hard to tell. Realistically, it will probably always be challenged because of the attention first-in-the-nation gets from the media and the candidates running. Other early states that don't get that attention envy us. But there are other ways that first-in-the-nation can be threatened, such as a switch to a national primary or regional primary, which have been periodically discussed. At least for 2012 we're safe. Every cycle is a new challenge, though.

Albert McKeon:

May I also take a leap in adding that the New Hampshire cold weather advantage seems to help athletes when they move to the college and professional ranks?

Look no further than Bedford native Chris Carpenter, whose stellar pitching on some cold nights led the St. Louis Cardinals to a world championship.

Cameron Kittle:

I don't know about that connection, Al. When was the last time the Patriots won a home playoff game in January?

Jake Berry:

Ouch.

Moderator:

Thank you. We are done.</