By Senator Kristin Phillips-Hill (District 28)
The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.
This past summer, the top officials for state agencies were dispatched to all corners of our commonwealth, including here in York County, to sell the Governor’s plan to bond $4.5 billion to pay for a lengthy wish list of projects.
Long-term borrowing would provide a short-term cash infusion for infrastructure improvements including, but not limited to, blight remediation and improved flood controls, parks and trails, and expanded access to high-speed internet.
On the surface, some may say this sounds reasonable and responsible. As the Chair of the Senate Communications and Technology Committee, I have spent my summer conducting a series of public hearings on the issue of expanding access to high-speed broadband internet for more Pennsylvanians. This is an important issue to many residents throughout York County, where internet may be slow to non-existent.
However, as the lead proponent for this issue in the Senate, I believe it is important that we have clearly defined the size, scope, and magnitude of the problem, identified the steps necessary to address the problem, and have a reasonable cost estimate to resolve it. None of which has been verified by the administration.
Early on in this endeavor, as I looked at how we could close our state’s digital divide, the initial estimates from the Federal Communications Commission indicated we had around 800,000 Pennsylvanians lacking access to high-speed internet. A recent Penn State study shows that number is closer to 11 million.
Now the governor wants to borrow money to address this problem. Yet again, the problem has not been fully defined nor quantified.
Think about it this way: you go to the bank to take out a loan to buy a car. You do not know if you are going to buy a used Ford Focus or a brand new Chevy Corvette. Both good cars, but very different price tags. You would not do that with your own borrowing, but this is exactly what Restore PA pledges to do.
And Restore PA is not an isolated issue. We have found ourselves in this mess before, because a problem was not thoroughly vetted or defined.
During Governor Tom Ridge’s administration, the state entered into a contract to deploy a telecommunications network to be used by the State Police, other law enforcement agencies, and first responders. The goal was to build out a statewide infrastructure that would provide reliable and stable communications, especially during times of emergency.
To date, the state plowed over $800 million— more than four times the original estimated cost—into this program and it still does not work.
Since taking office, Governor Wolf has pursued new taxes on the natural gas industry. While York County has no active drilling, it has been a beneficiary of revenue the state collects from drilling. In fact, York County has received over $3.1 million in impact fee revenues since 2011 and more than $485,000 last year alone.
Pennsylvania’s impact fee raised more money than West Virginia, Ohio, Arkansas and Colorado combined, despite these four states combining to produce more natural gas than the Commonwealth.
To tack on additional energy taxes in Pennsylvania to throw funding toward an undefined problem is irresponsible and repeats the same mistakes of old.
As someone who is working through the issue of getting more Pennsylvanians connected to the internet, we need to go through the process methodically and systematically. Like any state issue, you can throw all of the money in the world at a problem and it will still never be enough.
We need to be efficient, good stewards of taxpayer dollars.
In the Senate, I have had two resolutions receive the support of the entire state Senate that lay out our game plan on addressing this long-standing issue.
First, my Senate Resolution 47 requires a special legislative commission to be formed and made up of key stakeholders – from both the private sector and public sector – to look at the delivery of high-speed broadband services to unserved and underserved areas of the state.
My Senate Resolution 48 requires an investigation and an audit into taxes you and I paid back in the late 1990s and early 2000s through our phone bills that were dedicated to the deployment of high-speed internet. It will ensure those taxes we paid did what we were told they would do – connect more people to the internet.
We have seen the failures of throwing hard-earned tax dollars at a problem without a real strategy. We cannot repeat the mistakes of old and expect a different result.