How tough is Pennsylvania’s red tape problem? It is easier for Pittsburgh-based Astrobiotic to get a permit to go to the moon than it would be to get permits to develop a business site in nearby Moon Township.
That was the one-liner Luke Bernstein, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, shared during a recent press conference urging the legislature to push through permitting reform as a top priority. Bernstein told business and legislative leaders that Pennsylvania lost 40,000 residents to other states just in the last year.
The Keystone State ranks in the bottom five for business, Bernstein added. A report from Wallet Hub released this year said Pennsylvania was the seventh-worst state to start a business.
“Recent examples that we’ve lost because of our permit system right here in Pennsylvania, including U.S. Steel,” said Bernstein. “U.S. Steel built a $3 billion investment, which was 900 good-paying jobs with an average salary over $100,000 a year in Arkansas. When then-Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.) sat down and announced that U.S. Steel was going to make this infrastructure investment in Arkansas; he said that they would move into the building before they would ever even get permitted in Pennsylvania.”
Jeff Nobers of Pittsburgh Works Together confirmed the story, pointing out that “every piece of equipment” for the U.S. Steel operation in Pennsylvania was sitting in warehouses waiting on permits.
“It was definitely going to be built,” said Nobers. “This was not a smokescreen by U.S. Steel.”
Officials with U.S. Steel joined state and local leaders in Osceola, Ark., to break ground on the operation. What could have been Pennsylvania’s has been labeled one of the most advanced in North America and the largest private project in Arkansas’ history.
State Sen. Kristen Phillips Hill (R-York County) told the group she has a very direct, and ironic, connection to the problem. She represents the former home of the York Narrow Fabrics Company, manufacturer of the actual “red tape” the federal government once used to bind its printed documents. Hill said she has been hearing about the need for reform from employers and neighbors, one of whom left the state because of the challenges with his business to expand in Pennsylvania.
“He said, ‘Kristen, I just can’t do it anymore,” said Phillips Hill, who introduced Senate Bill 350 to bring about reform. “I’ve had infrastructure projects here in York County that were supposed to be done in three years that took seven years or went massively over budget because of the continuous delays.”
Gov. Josh Shapiro (D-Pennsylvania) prioritized permitting reform when he took office earlier this year. One of his first acts was signing an executive order to improve Pennsylvania’s licensing, permitting, and certification processes. It instituted a “date-certain” by which applicants will hear back from an agency about each license, permit, or certificate application.
Following the I-95 bridge collapse in June, the governor helped expedite the permitting process and get a temporary fix in place within 12 days.
Like Bernstein, Shapiro believes these things will help fill and create jobs while also assisting businesses looking to expand in Pennsylvania. Phillips Hill would like to see this type of effort in her district. So would Sen. Lisa Boscola in Lehigh and Northampton Counties.
“I get so many calls from developers, contractors, engineers, all looking for help on simple answers, and they’re not hearing anything back from agencies for weeks and sometimes months,” said Boscola, a supporter of Senate Bill 350. “Everybody knows that government does not create jobs, so one place where government can really stymie that job creation process is the permitting process.”
Examples offered by Boscola include businesses and professionals being denied permits because they did not check a box and, therefore, had to go all the way back to the beginning of the process. And these are not just problems for one or two industries more than others, she said. Permitting slowdowns are holding up everything from roads to homes, pipelines, solar fields, and broadband, Boscola insisted.
In other words, what Pennsylvanians and other Americans depend on is being hampered by government.
“I will talk to the governor about this when I see him because, to me, this is one of the biggest projects we can do,” said Boscola. “Senate Bill 350 would just make Pennsylvania more competitive, and our future would just be brighter for everybody.”
If and when legislators and the governor move, the building trades will be ready, Nobers said.
“It’s very logical,” said Nobers. “If businesses can’t get the permits to construct, the building trades don’t work.”