As the N.H. Legislature continues to develop the state’s biennial budget, members of the local business community say they’re monitoring the process and watching how the finished product could impact Monadnock Region businesses.
“We’re early in the budget process, and it is a sausage-making process that goes on for several months,” said Phil Suter, president Greater Keene & Peterborough Chamber of Commerce. “... Ultimately, we end up with something with June, so it’s a little difficult to say exactly, at this point, where things might end up.”
The debate over state funding for the N.H. Small Business Development Center highlights the fluidity of the budget process. Gov. Chris Sununu’s original two-year budget proposal in February included a plan to end state funding for the group, which offers free advice to approximately 3,000 Granite State small businesses each year on subjects like growth strategies, marketing, supply-chain development and accounting. That plan sparked a response from the Greater Keene & Peterborough Chamber, Suter said.
“Our board actually did react quite strongly to that, and issued a statement [in late February] to say that they felt strongly that that should be fully funded, at least at the levels that it was funded for in the past,” he said. “... We’re a state made up of small businesses. In my view, it’s not a good message to be sending to small businesses to say that you’re going to walk away from any state funding commitments to do some things to help small businesses.”
Sununu has since reversed course on his approach to state funding for the SBDC, saying earlier this month that he now supports assisting the organization because of an increase in state revenues due to an increase in business tax revenues.
As budget discussions continue at the state level, N.H. Rep. John Hunt, a Rindge Republican who chairs the House Commerce and Consumer Affairs Committee, said the budget process is the top legislative priority for the local business owners he speaks to. And while Suter emphasized that the budget is a work in progress, he said groups such as the Greater Keene and Peterborough Chamber can advocate for what sorts of spending priorities will be reflected in the final budget.
“Where I think we ought to be focused is on the things that tend not to be in the partisan category,” Suter said. “We need to continue to stay focused on issues, particularly in western New Hampshire in the more rural parts of the state, things like broadband.”
He added that several Monadnock Region towns are moving forward with public-private partnerships to bring high-speed Internet to rural areas. Over the past two weeks, voters in Gilsum, Marlborough, Sullivan and Troy have approved these sorts of projects at their annual town meetings, in addition to other communities that have passed similar measures in previous years.
“So that’s very encouraging, and any state support of that would certainly make that go faster,” Suter said. “... [Broadband] is absolutely critical to any future prosperity in the state of New Hampshire, particularly in the rural parts of it. We cannot exist or compete with the rest of the world if our broadband is insufficient or inaccessible or too expensive.”
Sununu’s budget proposal also includes an array of tax cuts, including a drop in the meals and rooms tax from 9 percent to 8.5 percent, and decreasing the business enterprise tax from 0.6 percent to 0.55 percent.
“That’s something we support that’ll help businesses be more competitive against businesses in other states, because we have a high rooms and meals tax,” Hunt, the Rindge Republican, said of the former.
Sununu’s tax-cutting agenda has been expected to receive a warm welcome in the Legislature after Republicans reclaimed both the N.H. House and Senate in the November elections. However, Suter said, the Greater Keene & Peterborough Chamber tends to stay away from advocating for partisan issues, like taxes.
“We want to be a low tax state, and that’s by and large a good thing, but it’s not the only thing,” Suter said. “So, lower taxes isn’t the answer to everything, and sometimes it doesn’t make as big a difference to a small business as some other things might.
“It might make a big difference to a really, really large business. But if you reduce the [business enterprise tax] or [business profits tax] by 0.25 percent, the effect on a small business is not insignificant, but it’s not often the difference between staying in business and not.”
In the Monadnock Region, Suter added, small businesses often tell the chamber that infrastructure, not taxes, is their top priority.
“It’s funny when we talk to businesses, the first thing that comes up is not generally not taxes and regulations – although most people would like to see less of both of those – but it’s more infrastructure stuff, whether it’s broadband or roads and bridges,” he said. “Those are huge things for the economic vitality of the state going forward, and of the Monadnock Region.”
Ultimately, Suter said he hopes that, as the budget process continues in the coming months, legislators will find common ground and fund programs that support local businesses.
“I hope that as the process unfolds over the next two or three months, that we’ll gradually get to where the priorities we all agree on can be properly funded,” he said.