By Tony May
Give Pennsylvania state government some credit. It has put the Commonwealth on the cutting edge in recent years of some important trends that have slowed the slow slide into Rust Belt decay.
The state authorized casino gaming which has created thousands of new jobs and generated billions in state revenue. It aided and abetted the birth and growth of the “tight gas” industry making Pennsylvania one of the largest producers of natural gas in the nation. It countered the national anti-tax trend and authorized an overhaul of the state’s funding strategy for transportation funding. In a time when Congress has failed in its responsibilities to write a new national transportation policy and fund it, Pennsylvania has turned the corner on replacing and upgrading obsolete bridges and restoring and expanding highways. And it about to join the growing number of states legalizing cannabis to heal the sick, create jobs and add needed state tax revenues.
Yet Pennsylvania still lags behind other states in population growth, average and median family income, economic development and other vital signs of a thriving economy. So what one, single thing can the General Assembly and the Governor do to get ahead of the curve and increase the rate of economic growth and restore actual population growth to keep Pennsylvania competitive among the states?
The answer is: be more like California – the good aspects of California. The “Golden State” is unafraid to see itself as an outlier, a trend-setter and innovator. Pennsylvania is more inclined to avoid sticking out like a sore thumb. It doesn’t mean that we need threaten to secede from the union, ala California Gov. Jerry Brown. It means that we need to work harder to chart our own future independent of the largesse of the federal government – something that looks like it might go the way of the dodo bird anyway.
A good place to start would be to evaluate Pennsylvania’s unused capacity and find ways to increase utilization on existing resources. One of the reasons Pennsylvania faces bitter annual state budget fights is because the decay of our existing economic engine is throwing off less and less cash. The first factor to address here is population stagnation.
Outside of a few key, mostly suburban counties, Pennsylvania’s population is not growing. While an increasing population would add to demand for services, it is likely that new residents would generate more in economic demand than they would consume in state and local services. This would be true even of immigrants from war torn countries.
Another sector that is under-utilized is higher education, particularly our state-owned universities. Attracting out-pf-state students (perhaps even international students) would help our state-owned schools operate more efficiently. Because they are operating, for the most part, under capacity, increasing the number of higher-revenue non-resident students would not be denying access to qualified in-state students. The bottom line would be an economic boost in 14 Pennsylvania non-urban communities.
Third on the list would be a state approach to increase demand for home ownership aimed primarily at third class cities and boroughs. Pennsylvania’s towns and cities are being hollowed out. The state should investigate strategies to attract new residents to small towns where thousands of dwellings stand vacant and decaying.
The best part is that most Pennsylvanians would relish the challenge. Every Pennsylvania community has local pride; it would be easy to transfer that enthusiasm to support for a state growth effort.