Regional collaboration is key to New England’s success

As the 112th Congress returned to Washington this month, the New England region has seen significant changes in the level of clout its Congressional delegation holds.

Several of New England’s most senior and respected senators — Connecticut’s
Chris Dodd and New Hampshire’s Judd Gregg — have retired. Both were known for their ability to build consensus on critical legislation and for their tireless work on behalf of the entire region. These retirements come not long after the passing of Sen. Ted Kennedy, one of New England’s fiercest advocates on Capitol Hill.

With the change in party control of the House of Representatives, New England’s predominantly Democratic House members find themselves in the minority. With this comes the loss of numerous influential committee and subcommittee chairmanships.

New England is fortunate to still have an accomplished group of representatives in Washington, but with these significant changes to the power structure in Congress, regional collaboration becomes all the more important. Economic challenges do not recognize state lines, and we cannot afford to approach these problems as six individual states.

Regional collaboration needs to happen on several levels. First, members of the New England delegation must continue to work collaboratively on issues that impact our regional economy. Thirty-four voices fighting together as a united team are much stronger than six smaller groups.

Second, the New England business community must unite to tackle the issues that affect businesses’ ability to grow and thrive in this region. Collaboration is necessary not only within certain industries, but also across all of the industries that play a role in the regional economy.

And third, government leaders and business leaders must listen to one another. Businesses alone cannot grow and create jobs without support from the government in the form of a regulatory climate that promotes such growth. And government cannot craft policies that will boost the economy without input from the experts — the employers.

There are several important areas where regional collaboration could have a meaningful impact on our region’s economy in the year ahead:

• Implementation of Landmark Reforms: Last year, Congress enacted several pieces of landmark reform legislation that will each have a significant impact on businesses. However, the health care reform and Wall Street reform packages were only first steps in revamping our health care and financial services systems. In the months ahead, federal regulators will develop rules and regulations under these two new laws. As these processes unfold, the business community will be wise to stay engaged and provide feedback on how proposed rules will affect them. At the same time, regulators will be well served to pay close attention to that feedback to ensure that, as these new laws are implemented, there are no adverse effects or unintended consequences on businesses.

• Trade. International trade plays an important role in the economies of all six New England states. For example, in Connecticut, export shipments of merchandise totaled $14.9 billion in 2009, and export-supported jobs linked to manufacturing account for an estimated 5.2 percent of total private-sector employment. There are several possible free trade agreements on the horizon that Congress should take a careful look at. While there are always concerns inherent in expanded international trade, the possible benefits for the regional economy cannot be overlooked.

• Job Creation. Unemployment rates across the nation have begun to decline, slowly, but there is still a long road ahead to get millions of Americans back to work. The recent extension of several tax policies — including the capital gains and dividends tax rates and the research and development tax credit — will promote growth and are a step in the right direction, but more must be done. One challenge is the so-called “labor mismatch.” As a recent study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston confirmed, there are plenty of workers with college and advanced education, yet there is a shortage of middle-skill workers to fill the types of jobs that are expected to be created as the economy recovers. Government, the business community, and the education community must work together to close this gap and ensure that there is appropriate training available so that workers can compete for 21st century jobs.

Surely there are countless other issues where regional collaboration can play a role. Despite the challenges of the past several years, New England is fortunate to have very capable government leaders and a vibrant, diverse business community. If they continue to work together in a productive way, the region is well positioned for growth.

 James T. Brett is the president and CEO of the New England Council, the nation’s oldest regional business organization.