WBJ: 3 issues Congress should tackle to spur growth
As originally appearing in The Worcester Business Journal

James T. Brett
Special to the Worcester Business Journal

Barely a month into the New Year, our region continues to see slow but steady economic growth. The national unemployment rate has hit a five-year low, and throughout New England, employers are adding to their workforces.

2013 was a frustrating year as leaders in Washington struggled to reach compromise on critical fiscal issues. But the year ended on an encouraging note as Congress forged a bi-partisan budget.

We hope we will see more of this willingness to compromise this year, and the New England Council believes there are several areas where such bipartisan Congressional action could foster economic growth.

Immigration reform. A major challenge for many New England employers is a shortage of skilled workers in the STEM fields: science, technology, engineering and math. Yet these are the fields where we expect to see the most growth in the years ahead. It is estimated that by 2018, there will be 300,000 open STEM jobs just in Massachusetts.

The Senate took significant strides toward addressing this problem last year, passing comprehensive immigration reform legislation. The bill increases the cap on H-1B visas, allowing more foreign-born STEM workers to remain in the U.S., and reallocates fees from those visas to support STEM education to develop a domestic pipeline of STEM workers.

Unfortunately, immigration reform efforts stalled in the House in 2013. We urge the House to address the shortage of highly skilled STEM workers, helping our region’s many high-tech employers to thrive.

Energy efficiency. A big issue for New England businesses is the high cost of energy. One way to address long-term energy costs is to increase efficiency. Last year, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, a Democrat, partnered with Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, a Republican, to introduce bi-partisan, deficit-neutral legislation to do just that. Their bill creates a national strategy to increase the use of energy efficiency technologies through a national model building energy code, and creates a financing program for commercial building efficiency projects.

Although the bill was debated in the Senate in 2013, it was not put to a vote. We hope the Senate will return to this important legislation and that Congress will act to increase energy efficiency and lower costs.

Investment in research. Through cutting-edge research initiatives, New England’s prestigious universities and teaching hospitals produce many transformative breakthroughs in energy, medicine, defense and technology. These institutions rely on funding from a variety of federal agencies to conduct this research — funding that has been cut significantly in recent years.

The research conducted in our region leads to new innovations, and it has a remarkable economic impact. For example, the National Institutes of Health alone invested more than $2.4 billion in Massachusetts in 2010, creating more than 34,000 jobs.

Investing in research is investing in job creation and economic growth. The recent budget compromise was a positive step, restoring a significant portion of last year’s sequestration cuts. We hope Congress will invest more federal funds in research, an investment that will yield tremendous returns.

There are many important issues facing Congress this year, not the least of which are ongoing efforts to address our fiscal challenges. However, these are three areas where the New England Council believes compromise is possible and where action will result in economic growth in New England and throughout the nation.

James T. Brett is president and CEO of The New England Council, a non-partisan alliance of businesses, academic and health institutions, and public and private organizations throughout New England that promotes economic growth.

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