By Joe Shean
For five years now the Business and Industry Association has hosted a leadership summit to bring together business leaders from around the state, legislative leaders, heads of state agencies, and the Governor to learn about pressing issues affecting employers. Past summits have included sessions on the important role manufacturing plays in driving New Hampshire’s economy, New Hampshire’s electrical energy crisis, affordable housing for working people, overregulation of PFAS and other emerging contaminants, and workforce development challenges, to name a few. Each workshop featured expert panelists to provide a topic overview, followed by a dialog between policymakers and business leaders on possible solutions to the challenge(s) raised. The leadership summit also featured ample time for policymakers and business leaders to mix, mingle, and build stronger relationships with one another. As a member of BIA’s executive board and participant in several past summits, I’ve found them to be invaluable.
Alas, this year, in light of the pandemic, BIA’s Sixth Annual New Hampshire Leadership Summit will be held virtually. While the BIA team won’t be able to recreate the relationship-building opportunities between policymakers and business leaders that are embedded each year in the in-person event, shifting to an online format will allow BIA to accommodate more participants. For example, whereas in the past BIA’s invitation to legislators was restricted to House leaders from both parties, plus the 24-person Senate, this year BIA is able to invite and accommodate the entire 424-person legislature. Likewise, all BIA members will be invited to participate at no cost, while future BIA members may participate for a modest fee.
Preliminary topics this year will focus on 5G technology, the need for a legal “safe harbor” for employers, factors that influence where manufacturers decide to locate and grow, how to resolve the state’s pending budget hole, the increasing burden of unemployment insurance taxes, and more. Regarding 5G, BIA views its deployment as essential to ensuring New Hampshire remains economically competitive in the 21 st century. The work of a 5G legislative study commission will form the basis of this workshop at the leadership summit. The session on a legal “safe harbor” will address the pressing need to protect all employers who are complying with federal and state health and safety guidelines from unwarranted COVID-19 related liability litigation. Many states across the country are moving forward with such protections; New Hampshire is not.
The leadership summit will also include a presentation by business leaders from advanced manufacturing on key factors that affect where they locate and grow their operations. Manufacturing’s impact on New Hampshire’s economy is more pronounced than any other sector because it’s one of the very few sectors that generates wealth that circulates throughout the economy, so retaining employers in this sector and helping them grow is essential to restoring the state’s strong economy. A fourth workshop will focus on how to craft a new, two-year state budget without hurting employers, most of whom are struggling to regain their footing and retain their employees in the midst of COVID-19. A state budget is difficult to put together under the best of circumstances, but next legislative session (which begins in January) will prove to be especially challenging given a projected deficit in state revenue that some observers think will be as high as $500 million. Leaders of the Senate Finance Committee will lead this session.
Finally, the leadership summit will take a deep dive into the health of New Hampshire’s unemployment insurance trust fund, which is normally entirely funded from unemployment insurance taxes paid by employers. Due to the unprecedented impact the pandemic has had on employment in the Granite State, the once robust trust fund used to pay unemployment benefits is on the verge of bankruptcy. Will the federal government ride to the rescue with an infusion of cash? What happens to unemployment benefits if the well runs dry? Will taxes employers pay go up even more?
While it’s rare for “silver bullets” to reveal themselves at BIA’s New Hampshire Leadership Summit, the workshops have proven effective at getting conversations started between employers like me who largely fund state operations through taxes, and policymakers who decide how to spend business-generated tax revenues. This is accomplished in a respectful, professional, and non-confrontational setting— particularly important given the hyper-partisan times we find ourselves in. The New Hampshire Leadership Summit will look different this year, but like the BIA team, I’m confident it will continue to be an important opportunity for policymakers and business leaders to collectively roll up their sleeves and resolve problems together.
Joe Shean is president of R.P. Abrasives & Machines and also a BIA Executive Board Member.