BusinessNH Magazine: A Regional Approach to Public Policy12-05-2011 (PDF Version)
A Regional Approach to Public Policy in New Hampshire
Dec. 2, 2011
by STEVE NORTON AND DANIEL BARRICK
At the same time, New Hampshire has a well-defined statewide image: “Live Free or Die.” “Tax-Free New Hampshire.” These are just two examples of the well-defined statewide images that shape public debates and define how outsiders view us. From a policy perspective, a statewide focus often makes sense, including education funding and tax policy.
But there’s another, less frequently used, approach to public policy in NH: viewing the state as a network of distinct regions defined by geography and demographics. Many of the pressing issues likely to shape the state’s future–questions of transportation, housing, economic development and water use–play out across town and city borders. These issues often affect populations in different ways across the state. And NH’s residents face disparate challenges and opportunities depending on what part of the state they call home. An approach to policymaking that accounts for this fact will likely lead to more informed decision making.
But aside from isolated, occasional examples, NH’s regions generally play a small role in conversations about the state’s future. This is not to argue against large-scale programs. Statewide economic development, environmental or education programs can all be valuable policy tools. But a more fine-tuned regional approach can complement broader visions for NH.
Why does this matter? One example: Recent census data shows that NH is one of the wealthiest, best-educated states in the nation. But when you disaggregate data on median income and educational attainment by region, stark differences become apparent. The less likely a region is to have residents with a college degree, the lower its median wages. Shouldn’t our approach to economic development acknowledge these disparities across the state and seek to address them?
Many policy topics would benefit from this approach, some of which are discussed in the NH Center for Public Policy Studies’ recent report “What is New Hampshire?” With a declining statewide student population, conversations about school consolidation obviously require an analysis that extends across municipal boundaries. The relationship between economic development, housing, and transportation is another topic that begs for a regional analysis.
The White Mountains region, for example, saw greater population growth than any other part of the state over the past decade. Much of that increase was driven by retirees lured to amenity-rich communities such as Conway, Lincoln and Woodstock. The economy in this region is dominated by tourism: accommodation and food service, recreation, entertainment and the seasonal home market. But the White Mountains region also faces a challenge in accommodating the younger workforce that serves the tourists and retirees who fuel its economy. This is not an issue that any individual town can solve on its own. Ensuring that the region has the right mix of housing stock for those workers in coming years requires a coordinated approach from multiple communities and will benefit from the collaboration of businesses, municipal leaders and nonprofits.
How can such a regional approach best be carried out? There already exists several forums for regional action in the state. The most obvious is the network of regional planning commissions, which are charged with advising local communities on issues of transportation and planning, among others. But, like cities and towns, these agencies derive their authority from the state, often face funding challenges, and lack any policy-making power.
The state’s Executive Council is another body that divides the state into a series of regions. But the Council, too, lacks policymaking authority and was largely designed as a check on the Governor.
Regional planning commissions can help identify important issues and guide local thinking. Chambers of commerce and economic development councils can spur discussions about regional planning, and town and city leaders can reach across their own borders to work with their neighbors. But if the state truly wants to encourage a more regional perspective in its policymaking, these efforts need to be strengthened. That may mean giving the existing regional bodies more regulatory and policy-making authority, or giving them a greater voice in legislative debates, where so much of the state’s policy is designed and enacted.
New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies