By Gene Barr
It’s the start of a new legislative session — and a new term for Gov. Tom Wolf.
The governor’s budget address this Tuesday sets in motion a very busy time in state government, as lawmakers and the administration work to finalize a state spending plan while at the same time trying to get competing legislative priorities over the finish line.
However, as the governor noted in his inauguration speech, despite the fact that Pennsylvania continues to have divided government, there are issues on which all parties can find common ground in order to move Pennsylvania forward.
One major area that we expect to be a focus is workforce development. This isn’t a partisan issue – it’s a Pennsylvania issue, one that is impacting every corner of the state. It’s also a growing concern among employers – as evidenced in the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry’s 28th Economic Survey which was conducted in August 2018.
For the first time ever, job creators listed difficulties finding skilled and qualified employees to fill open positions as the biggest problem facing their companies.
The chamber is working to reverse that trend through our “Start the Conversation HERE” workforce initiative, a grassroots campaign aimed at creating a meaningful dialogue among employers, educators and students about the opportunities that exist in the skilled trades and other growing career fields in the Commonwealth.
We’ve also supported and continue to support smart workforce-centric public policies – such as criminal justice reform and programs to help veterans re-enter the workforce – that give more people access to the skills and training they need to obtain a good paying job.
The chamber will also be seeking to build consensus on reforming our state tax structure. We’ve witnessed the positive impact the federal tax reform package has had on the nation’s economy and it’s time to take a hard look at instituting reforms at the state level that will increase the Commonwealth’s competitiveness.
Pennsylvania’s corporate tax structure – particularly its corporate net income tax, which is among the nation’s highest, continues to be a major red flag for potential investors.
There will, however, be issues on which the chamber and various elected officials disagree. As the statewide voice of business, it is our organization’s responsibility to advocate for policies that will improve the Commonwealth’s business climate, while at the same time fighting back against proposals that will place additional burdens on the state’s employer community.
This includes pushing back against government mandated minimum wage increases. In late January, the governor unveiled an aggressive proposal that would increase the state’s minimum wage to $12 an hour in July with incremental increases to $15, as well as the elimination of the tipped wage.
This mandated hike – which would increase entry level wages by more than 60 percent – would lead to many unintended consequences.
Countless non-partisan studies have shown that these policies would lead to negative impacts on employment, including reduced hours and sometimes even job loss.
The chamber is instead urging lawmakers to focus on helping individuals out of poverty through job training programs that will help low-wage workers advance through the workforce, along with programs like an Earned Income Tax Credit that wouldn’t require the business community to exclusively shoulder the burden.
Additionally, the chamber continues to lead a multi-industry coalition against additional taxes on the natural gas industry.
Access to affordable energy is one of the Commonwealth’s strongest competitive advantages. And yet, some elected officials continue to target the natural gas industry for additional taxes – despite the fact that the industry’s impact tax is on track to bring in record high collections for 2018. The mentality of taxing any industry that shows growth potential must stop if we hope to economically prosper.
Throughout the 2019-20 legislative session, we look forward to working with lawmakers and the Wolf administration to advance policies that will help to put the Commonwealth on the path towards long-term economic growth and prosperity.
That includes addressing the skills gap to ensure that the state’s workforce is prepared to meet the needs of the evolving jobs market and enacting policies that will promote private sector job growth and investment in the Commonwealth.
Gene Barr is the president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry. He writes from Harrisburg.