Op-Ed: We’re No. 22 — and that’s bad news

State Senator Ryan Aument (R-36)

It is almost surreal to look at numbers and rankings that show Pennsylvania floundering in comparison to other states, but this freakish economic landscape that puts us behind Ohio and Indiana speaks to a rock-solid reality.

Our state’s reputation for high taxes, unfriendly regulatory climate and stagnant manufacturing growth quantifies what our guts have told us for decades. We aren’t ready to face the future because we’re locked into a cycle of doubt, conflict and cynicism.

Site Selection, a trade magazine that is the source of conventional wisdom for CEOs seeking places to expand, puts Pennsylvania 22nd on its list — behind North Carolina, Georgia, Texas, Ohio and Indiana. The sunbelt outpacing the north isn’t necessarily news. But when midwestern states, with the same weather and the same location are beating us, we need to think about what has gone wrong.

Don’t think that this is a function of the pandemic, although both Pennsylvania and New York took hits from governors who closed businesses by fiat, without explaining their reasoning and in a way that rewarded big box chain stores while demolishing local and independent businesses.

Pre-pandemic figures in manufacturing show Indiana growing those jobs by more than 20,000. Ohio picked up nearly 10,000 manufacturing jobs. Florida, Michigan, and Georgia were off the charts. Pennsylvania lost 300 manufacturing jobs in that same period.

Same economy. Same challenges. But it remained for Pennsylvania to dip in precisely the kinds of jobs that sustain families and create spinoffs.

So, what’s going on?

If we are going to be the state we could be — even the one we once were — Pennsylvania must stop apologizing for its bounty of resources and treat manufacturing as the essential economic bedrock it truly is.

Pennsylvania needs a tax policy that doesn’t scare off businesses. It demands a respect for the hands-on occupations that create tangible goods. Our potential isn’t limited by a lack of talent or an absence of resources. We’re being held back by the smug self-righteousness of people who think humankind’s very presence is an intolerable imposition on the planet.

My travels around the state have increasingly brought me face to face with men and women who, a scant generation ago, would have been a reliable vote for the Democrats. They are from a class that has been abandoned by the no-growth, high-tax, government-dominant policies that abandoned core economic needs of working families and replaced them with social issues that don’t belong in politics.

These families find their traditions denigrated, their values questioned, and their very means of sustenance challenged as either environmentally unsound or unimportant for our future. Increasingly, they recognize the need for leaders that don’t simply share their values, but who celebrate them.

Much of our problem here is the political culture. An array of anti-growth groups, some claiming to speak for the environment, reflexively oppose any undertaking that threatens to turn a single shovelful of earth. The opposition to the Shell ethane “cracker” plant in Beaver County was a case study of how a state in the midst of a recession can be held in place by a system that puts up obstacles virtually every step of the way.

Ohio, for instance, is ranked as fourth most desirable location in part because of a system of pre-permitting that lets businesses get started on brick-and-mortar facilities without the endless regulatory challenges that automatically assume any new industry is a threat. It should worry us that the expected spinoff industries that will grow around the cracker plant will do their growing just over the Beaver County border in Ohio.

Our region is within a day’s drive of more than half the North American market. Location is in our favor, but it is in the favor of our near neighbors as well. But we also have something they haven’t got: uncertainty. Business weighs all factors and costs before they build, and the unknown is a deadly enemy.

For too long, we’ve provided both uncertainty and even outright hostility when it comes to manufacturing jobs. It’s time to change that culture.

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