Business and labor agreeing can be a rare thing, as PA Chamber President and CEO Luke Bernstein has stated.
So, too, is the sight of Democrats, Republicans, and Independents joining together on bipartisan legislation.
Yet both are becoming commonplace when the topic is permitting reform, a hot-button issue at the forefront of Pennsylvania’s drive to improve its competitiveness and expand economic opportunities for business and workforce.
“I think the bottom line is that Pennsylvania needs to be more competitive,” Bernstein said Tuesday in a press conference addressing permitting reform in the state. “We’ve lost 40,000 residents to other states in the last year alone. We rank in the bottom five for businesses leaving.
“But here’s the good news: There’s bipartisan consensus in Harrisburg to get generational opportunity for reform across the finish line fast. That will lead to more jobs, that will lead to a stronger Pennsylvania economy. Everyone agrees this is a bipartisan issue, and everyone agrees that cutting the permitting process in terms of streamlining it, we can be more effective. Pennsylvania loses out in critical investments if we have an antiquated, outdated permitting structure.”
Bernstein pointed to recent examples of Pennsylvania losing businesses and workers because of its permitting system. U.S. Steel built a $3 billion investment, encompassing 900 jobs with average salaries of more than $100,000, in Arkansas. The state’s governor at the time, Asa Hutchinson, remarked that the next generation steel mills would be built faster in Arkansas than Pennsylvania could permit them.
Bernstein also cited a company in Pittsburgh, Astrobiotic Technology, that he said is creating a Lunar Lander that’s going to hit the moon’s surface.
“It was apparent to me that it’s easier to get a permit to go to the moon than it is to build a new project in Moon Township, Pennsylvania,” he said.
Advocates of permitting reform see it as crucial to building a modernized public infrastructure, continuing to provide energy, goods, and services required in an economy grown increasingly diverse, and establishing advanced manufacturing hubs in innovative industries. Bernstein said reforms can be made in the permitting process without removing environmental restrictions.
The state’s permitting process as it stands now is considered costly, time consuming, and a sizeable detractor to job growth and investment. The PA Chamber supports the following reforms to aid in new projects being permitted and built:
- Third-party review of permits – With state agencies reporting workforce challenges, the PA Chamber recommends providing permitting agencies be given the option to contract with qualified third parties to assist with the technical review of permits.
- Codify the governor’s one-stop shop – The PA Chamber stood with the Shapiro Administration and leaders from business and organized labor for the signing of an executive order to establish a one-stop shop to streamline permits for key projects. The chamber recommends codifying this office into statute to provide long-term durability to the approach.
- Streamlined permit appeals – Once a permit is issued, it is possible the decision could be challenged in court. The PA Chamber recommends limiting review for permit challenges going before the Environmental Hearing Board to issues raised during public comment.
- Stop draining agency resources – Permit review times are protracted in part because of DEP, should it lose a permit appeal, potentially being on the hook for attorney’s fees. The PA Chamber supports state government having the resources to do its job by limiting awarding of legal fees only in cases of bad faith.
- Shot clocks and deemed approved – As timely permit decisions are necessary to get projects financed and built, the PA Chamber recommends a timeframe for permits to be reviewed and issued and deemed approved if the agency does not make a decision in the time defined in statute.
The PA Chamber fronted a group of 68 business associations and local chambers of commerce in sending a letter on May 8 to Gov. Josh Shapiro and members of the state legislature. The letter urged decisive action in reforming a permitting system the group deemed “dysfunctional and unpredictable.”
Two days later, the Pennsylvania Senate approved permitting reforms aimed at streamlining and expediting the permitting process. Senate Bill 350 was sponsored by Sens. Kristin Phillips-Hill (R-York) and Greg Rothman (R-Cumberland/Dauphin/Perry) and it built on executive orders Shapiro signed earlier this year that are designed to reduce permitting delays and government red tape. The bill was referred on May 18 to the State Senate, which reconvenes in September.
“Permitting delays affect everyone,” said Phillips-Hill, an experienced small business owner who noted that government red tape got its name from the red tape that was manufactured in York. “People can’t wait for days to get an answer from their state government. What is going on with government if you have to wait because the state can’t issue you that certificate?
“I think it’s why we have so much bipartisan support for such an initiative.”
Sen. Lisa Boscola (D-Lehigh/Northampton) said increased accountability and transparency are needed in the permitting process.
“One place where government can relay stymie the job creation process is the permitting process,” said Boscola. “It seems one of my No. 1 jobs now, rather than legislating, is navigating this permitting process.”
Boscola said delays can make or break projects, be it broadband, construction of roads and homes, pipelines, etc.
“The Lehigh Valley is a very growing area,” she said. “But a lot of times it’s the permitting process that’s holding up future development.”
Boscola said it’s encouraging to see business and labor, Democrats and Republicans come together on the common goal of finding what needs to be done to have government working for people and not against them.
“By speeding up the permitting process, we can get these projects moving faster and get working,” Boscola said.