Since the 2008 recession, Pennsylvanians have watched their communities shrink in population and businesses and factories that were once staples of family-sustaining jobs close. Since 1991, our Commonwealth has ranked near the bottom of the list of states in job growth. A major contributing factor to this issue centers on the ability to keep young adults in Pennsylvania.
One challenge in recruiting new businesses and retaining a younger workforce is access to high-speed internet. Right now, it remains vital that we bring rural broadband and the basic tools of today’s technology to the 800,000 Pennsylvanians who currently do not have access to it. Specifically, technology infrastructure will help restore our communities and bring a brighter future to our state. There is a growing understanding of the need for rural broadband and the ability to provide schools and businesses in Pennsylvania the power and tools needed to tackle workforce development.
Gov. Tom Wolf and I share similar goals to expand broadband access and improve the lives of residents in rural communities, including here in Adams and Cumberland counties. I am working as a member of the bipartisan House of Representatives Broadband Caucus to tackle the need for high-speed internet to help students, businesses, telemedicine and other initiatives in rural Pennsylvania.
While we agree on the importance of initiatives that will improve our communities, Gov. Wolf and I have stark differences on how to both fund and accomplish this task. Gov. Wolf and his administration are currently touring Pennsylvania’s rural communities to sell a tax-borrow-and-spend initiative as part of their “Restore PA” plan. The fundamental part of this plan involves taxing the Marcellus Shale natural gas industry, which is a major economic driver in Pennsylvania.
Gov. Wolf’s plan advocates putting this new tax revenue toward “restoring” our communities. What the governor has not been saying is that this tax revenue would be put toward a $4.5 billion bond. Our state would go further into debt and hope that natural gas companies do not leave Pennsylvania for a state with lower taxes, leaving us with a loan we cannot pay off.
I believe private-public partnerships offer a better solution to meeting our state’s broadband infrastructure needs. Private-public partnerships are the key to expanding broadband across Pennsylvania, not taxing one of our most prosperous economic drivers.
This concept is not a unique one. Within the 193rd, school districts have used these partnerships for infrastructure improvements to expand educational opportunities to their students. At Conewago Valley School District, private industry has invested heavily in the Colonial Career and Technology Center that is set to open this coming fall that will benefit students interested in the trades. There is no reason why we cannot look for a new private-public partnership specifically designed to support broadband access.
Pennsylvania would not be the first state to utilize these types of partnerships to expand high-speed internet access. A few years ago, Kentucky introduced KentuckyWired, a private-public partnership initiative that aimed to build the infrastructure to increase bandwidth speeds and service reliability within the state.
In Pennsylvania, some local municipalities have implemented broadband partnerships over the past couple years. The City of Lancaster partnered with a private company to build a low-cost, fiber-optic broadband network over a two-year period and last year launched LanCity Connect to its residents. Lawmakers in Harrisburg should study the successes and challenges of KentuckyWired and LanCity Connect to maximize efficiency and cost-saving measures in order to implement a statewide program.
Looking back at the 20th century and the expansion of access to electricity in America, rural electrification was a monumental task, but America did it. Our success in the 20th century brought new resources and opportunities to people and businesses. We did it then. We can do it now.
If we work together to build these private-public partnerships, we can restore Pennsylvania without debt and increased taxes. I look forward to working with my colleagues from both parties to put Pennsylvanians back to work and let them keep more of their hard-earned money in their pockets.