Among the many issues that come up during an election campaign--health care, national security, immigration--the one that historically matters the most to voters is the economy.
When times are good, incumbent politicians are quick to point that out on the campaign trail. In the race for New Hampshire’s Senate seat, Maggie Hassan is doing just that, touting the state’s economic performance during her four years as Governor.
But how much credit does Hassan, or really, any sole politician deserve for a state’s economic good fortune?
First, let’s step back and get a quick snapshot of the New Hampshire economy.
“We’re tied for the lowest unemployment rate in the country. Personal income is growing, we’ve added about 30,000 jobs,” says Russ Thibeault, an economist with the Laconia-based firm Applied Economic Research. “Economic indicators are up, so, really, we’ve done quite well. The state’s economy has done quite well.”
Thibeault says there are a couple of reasons for New Hampshire's economic strength during the past few years. For starters, there are a good mix of jobs across multiple sectors, including healthcare, education, manufacturing and hospitality. All our eggs aren’t in, say, a steel or energy basket.
And second, New Hampshire is a little fish in the much bigger ocean that is the national economy. And the U.S. economy is doing relatively well during the past few years.
“It’s a case of a rising tide lifting all ships, including New Hampshire,” says Russ Thibeault.
With lots of good data to throw around, it’s no surprise that Governor Maggie Hassan, who has sat in the corner office for the past four years, is making economic issues a centerpiece of her campaign for Senate.
“As you know, in my first term, I doubled and made permanent, with the Legislature, our R&D tax credit,” Hassan told the audience during a recent forum on business and the economy. “My economic plan calls for small business tax cuts, and expanding the federal R&D tax credit, as well.”
Those research and development tax credits are just one of a number of business-friendly policies Hassan regularly brings up on the trail. She’s also running TV ads, boasting of her handling of the state budget and its surplus.
But taking credit for a bipartisan budget that included business tax cuts, as the ad states, doesn’t sit well with everyone.
“You can’t veto it and then come back and take credit for it,” says Senate President Chuck Morse. The Salem Republican is eager to point out that when the two-year spending plan he helped craft landed on her desk, Hassan vetoed it, complaining about the cuts to business taxes. Three months later, she signed off on a little-changed budget.
“If that is what she’s gonna run on, she’s wrong,” says Morse. “And I certainly have taken the time to point that out to the public because she didn’t support this budget, and she certainly didn’t implement it properly.”
Hassan’s opponent, Republican incumbent Kelly Ayotte, also brings up the veto during debates.
Another challenge to Hassan’s economic record is that while the state overall has been performing well, there are still regions that haven’t bounced back.
“The data suggests that a lot of--so let’s take a look at jobs--a lot of the jobs that have been created over the last couple years, really in the southern tier,” says Greg Bird, an economist with the nonpartisan New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies. The North Country, in particular, hasn’t seen much of an economic rebound during the past few years.
Then, there are complaints from some areas of the business community that New Hampshire isn’t drawing in enough workers to fill both high skill and low skill jobs. The unemployment rate is so low there’s actually a growing labor shortage, which drives up costs and can stifle growth.
So, should Hassan take the blame for that? Should she get credit for hot areas of the state’s economy? Can a single politician really be at the center of all the transactions, the buying and selling, the hiring and firing, that make up our economy?
“In the end, governors probably get too much credit during the good years, and probably too much blame during the down years,” says Bird.
There are just too many forces to pin it all on a single elected official. Economist Russ Thibeault says the back slapping over this economic recovery should actually be shared.
“We’ve had good governance in New Hampshire. From the Governor’s office, the Legislature, the Executive Council, by in large, and that’s enabled the state to fully participate in the national economic recovery,” says Thibeault.
That means all those politicians can be expected to brag a little on this topic. It will be up to voters to determine who, in the end, gets the actual credit.