By Luke Bernstein and Rob Bair
If you watch any of the major cable news networks, you are likely to see people bitterly disagreeing about the news of the day. This may be good for ratings, but it’s terrible for solving problems.
In Pennsylvania, you’re seeing something different. If you watched PCN’s call-in program in late January, you saw us — the head of the state’s leading business organization and the head of the state’s building trades union — agreeing about the need to reform Pennsylvania’s permitting process.
And, if you saw a recent state House Policy Committee hearing on permitting reform, you would have seen representatives from our organizations explaining how it would benefit businesses, employees and communities.
Business and labor agreeing? This has been a rare sight. Today it is a realization that by working together, we can create greater opportunities for every Pennsylvanian and make our state stronger.
Permitting reform involves improving the processes by which construction and other development projects obtain approvals from government agencies. The process for applying for and obtaining permits takes too long, lacks transparency and costs businesses money and workers jobs. Permit delays mean that a project cannot receive financing, which can delay or cancel projects. This results in fewer good-paying jobs for the talented workers across our commonwealth who are ready to build a 21st century economy.
Last year U.S. Steel selected Arkansas over Pennsylvania for a $3 billion expansion supporting 900 jobs with an average salary in the six figures. Arkansas’ governor at the time, Asa Hutchinson, said that “Arkansas will permit that steel mill, we will build that steel mill, and we’ll have it open for business before you could ever get a permit to even start construction in Pennsylvania.”
This must change. Gov. Josh Shapiro said the same in his budget address, stating, “We all know that our licensing and permitting process takes too damn long.”
This is not a complaint — this is a fact, and the harsh reality is that it makes us uncompetitive.
Our organizations and our tens of thousands of members across Pennsylvania are committed to working together to enact the necessary reforms that will make Pennsylvania more competitive.
There are many reasons to be optimistic about the commonwealth. Last year, Pennsylvania set record highs for natural gas and electricity production, and our manufacturing output has never been higher.
But the state continues to set records in less desirable categories — among them, a declining workforce. In December of 2022, Pennsylvania had 435,000 job openings — 154,000 more than the pre-pandemic monthly average.
Additionally, while a recent Brookings Institution report applauded Pennsylvania for our early-stage talent pipeline for entrepreneurship, it noted the commonwealth has not translated those concepts into job gains. In many cases, this is due to costs associated with getting permits for new facilities, as well as an unwelcoming tax and legal climate.
We can do better. Pennsylvania businesses and workers have led this nation through every major transition since our founding nearly 250 years ago. We drilled the first oil well in Venango County; heated the first city with natural gas; opened the first commercial nuclear plant; and are continuing to lead the natural gas renaissance and the many manufacturing opportunities it brings. Our steel won world wars, and our life science industry is saving lives globally.
Pennsylvania must continue to lead with good public policy. Lawmakers can improve permitting processes without compromising their purposes or important environmental protections. We suggest several steps:
First, permit application reviews should follow a predetermined schedule and projects should be deemed approved if an agency fails to meet a required deadline. Qualified third-party reviewers should be able to review permit applications. Both proposals have passed the state House and state Senate in past sessions.
Next, we should provide certainty to state agencies that their decisions will stand up in court and stop wasting taxpayer resources on frivolous lawsuits by limiting the ability of courts to award attorney’s fees.
We should add transparency to the process by allowing the applicant to see the exact status of their application.
These proposals would cut red tape, ensure a more effective and efficient government, create family-sustaining jobs and boost our economy.
When Gov. Shapiro delivered his budget address, he made clear that with divided government in Harrisburg, legislation must be bipartisan to become law. Permitting reform is a bipartisan initiative.
The business and building trades communities stand ready to work together with the governor and legislators to advance bipartisan public policy that moves Pennsylvania forward. There’s no better place to start than permitting reform.
Luke Bernstein is president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry. Rob Bair is president of the Pennsylvania State Building & Construction Trades Council.