Gubernatorial candidates offer ideas to reverse aging trends

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MANCHESTER, N.H. (AP) — New Hampshire's aging population is no secret. But it often seems to be in this year's governor's race.

Nationwide, 1 in 5 Americans will be older than 65 by 2030; in New Hampshire, the ratio is closer to 1 in 3, according to U.S. Census Bureau projections. Currently, the state's median age of 41.8 years is nearly four years higher than the national average.

The trend means fewer children in public schools, greater strain on the health care system and a higher demand for public services that cost precious taxpayer dollars.

But in the race to replace outgoing Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan — and in state government more broadly — experts say the trend isn't getting the attention it deserves.

"The political cycle is a two-year cycle, demography is a 20-year cycle, and you can sort of ignore it in two-year increments," said Eric Herr, a longtime businessman and board member of the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies, which studies the state's demographic trends.

A group of researchers, business leaders and elected officials formed earlier this year to suggest how politicians could build a long-term focus on demographics. Their report hasn't been released publicly, but ideas included hiring a state demographer, mapping migration goals and better long-term budgeting to anticipate rising costs that will come along with an aging population.

If the state continues on its current path and the population gets even older, issues like greater workforce shortages, budget strains and potentially a loss in business tax revenue are likely to become a concern over the next decade.

"If it's not top of mind, it needs to be," Herr said.

So far, all seven major candidates have insisted the demographic changes need to be addressed. They have offered up a range of proposals, from improving schools to attracting new businesses and repairing and developing new infrastructure. But their ideas don't go as far as experts say is needed to bring real change.

The four Republicans focus on policies like cutting taxes to bring more businesses and, therefore, attract new residents and keep New Hampshire natives here. They believe the answer lies in bolstering training of skilled workers in manufacturing and other fields as well as cutting the state's two major business taxes — a primary driver of state revenue— to attract out-of-state businesses.

"I'm not one who believes that kids are not here because we don't have nightclubs and coffee shops," said Republican candidate Frank Edelblut, a businessman and one-term state representative. "I believe that they're not here because we don't have good paying jobs for them."

Executive Councilor Chris Sununu said he'd repurpose $5 million to $10 million in state "economic development" funds to help students who stay in New Hampshire to fill jobs in nursing, teaching and other health care positions pay down their student debt. It's unclear what existing programs that plan would draw money from.

"Businesses will see that we're making that investment and they'll want to come here because we have that workforce," he said.

Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas and state Sen. Jeanie Forrester are also running in the GOP primary. Forrester says she'd create a public-private partnership focused on creating and attracting new businesses. Gatsas said he'd create more technical schools around the state that connect high school students to the job market.

Democrats, meanwhile, focus more generally on expanding or improving public services, like transportation and schools, as a means to draw and retain younger residents. Among their ideas are promoting commuter rail from Boston to Manchester and Nashua and bolstering the state's education system.

"I would challenge anyone who is foot-dragging or opposing getting commuter rail up to the state to be honest that they're going to be part of solving the problem," said Democrat Colin Van Ostern, an executive councilor.

Mark Connolly, a former state securities regulator, suggests rail is just one of the ways New Hampshire can better connect and possibly poach from Massachusetts' bustling economy. In the past, New Hampshire has benefited from the suburbanization of the Boston area.

The third Democratic contender, former Portsmouth Mayor Steve Marchand, does not believe rail is the answer to the state's problems but he does believe in improving infrastructure and reversing the state's opioid epidemic as two means of drawing new residents.

"The brand of New Hampshire as a state struggling with opioid and heroin addiction is scary for a young family making lifelong decisions," he said.

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