Giving Rural Pennsylvania A Fair Chance For A Future


“Life is unfair,” famously intoned by President Jimmy Carter (and others), is an indisputable proposition.

These days, expressions of unfairness are on the rise.  In public debates of any gravity, someone invariably claims unfairness in framing their grievance.  Ubiquity by no means guarantees equal justification or attention.  Invoked too frequently and casually, it can dull our reaction to certifiable instances of acute unfairness.

Ask what we prize about rural Pennsylvania, and the answers are plentiful.  Rustic values and virtues.  Agriculture and farm animals.  Woods and streams.  Natural scenery and tranquility.  Sportsmen pursuits and tourism.  Trails and star gazing.  Refuge from urban hustle and bustle.  Small town friendliness, self-sufficiency, common sense, and thrift.

Yet this appreciation does not always translate into favorable state laws and funding.  In many ways, we tell folks living and working in rural Pennsylvania that we want them to preserve and protect and continue their heritage and nostalgic ways of life.  But they are constantly reminded we are not eager to help finance their future.  How many times have rural officials and residents been told there are not enough people in a locality to justify a project or service?

Some of this policy bias reaches back decades.  Complaints over the distribution of highway and bridge maintenance monies reflect inequities baked into the formula in the early ‘80s.

Others are of more recent vintage.  Exhibit A is the lack of reliable broadband access in small communities and rural areas.  Telecommunications companies agreed to provide it in exchange for deregulation.  Why has it not happened?  Too expensive.  Not enough return on investment.  Technology is advancing faster than anyone foresaw.  So why has government not stepped in?  For pretty much the same reasons.

During the last debate over telecommunications policy, a well-respected and influential state Senator, representing a suburban district that included a fair number of working families, explained the facts of life at the time: “My constituents are already paying for your roads, your schools, and your health care.  We are not paying for your telephones and computers too.”

How has the dynamic changed since?  The last recession devastated much of rural Pennsylvania.  These areas are slower to recover jobs.  Cornerstone institutions close because of mergers, or financial contractions, or predatory competitors.  Access to broadband has become indispensable across education, health care, and commerce, yet is seriously lacking in less populated areas.

More than a few state policymakers have suggested pulling the plug on struggling state universities, such as Mansfield.  That triage ignores how the declining state share of funding has driven up tuition and student debt and forced families to consider cheaper options.  Even more telling of bias, economic loss to host regions does not seem to enter the discussion.  The same is true for slated closures of prisons and state centers.

Farmers suffer financial stress.  One of the longer running success stories has been Pennsylvania’s commitment to preserving farmland.  In the counties where development pressure is heaviest, waiting lists exist.  Saving the land is not the same thing as sustaining operations, which the dairy crisis has underscored.

Access to quality, affordable health care is a constant worry.  There is a hopeful sign in the initiative giving rural hospitals a predictable budget, allowing them to stabilize finances and turn attention to preventive care as well as emergency treatment.  Such forward-looking collaboration needs to carry over to other issues.

Emergency services struggle to maintain manpower, keep current with equipment and training, and improve response times.  Warnings sound on the high cost of paid forces, if too many volunteer units close.  No one really believes that sort of rescue would be forthcoming from state government.

Libraries, ever more vital for economic, educational, and community purposes, are hard-pressed to attract professionals and volunteers, maintain accessible hours, build collections, and keep pace with technology.  State funding remains well below levels of twenty-five years ago.

Independent pharmacies continue to close up shop, depriving small communities of a traditionally indispensable source of personalized patient care.

State government frequently tries to pull operations from smaller counties.  Somebody determines constituent traffic does not measure up to that in more populated areas.  As if they needed a study to figure that out.  So bureaucrats tell people in Fulton County that they can go over the mountain to Bedford in the west or Chambersburg in the east.  Why should people be forced to do that?  They do not receive any state tax break to compensate them for lost services and greater inconvenience.

Budget battles often pit the suburbs versus cities, because that is where the concentrations of votes are.  Small communities end up as collateral damage no matter who prevails from year to year.

This recitation is far from uplifting, certainly nothing that appears in the tourist promotion literature.  There is a bright flicker of hope being lit, however.

The biggest economic booster in decades has come about through the development of fracking technology.  It is providing energy and hope in places where decline and despair had taken up residence over many years.  But bigger government advocates are trying very hard to fix this supposed problem.  Environmental groups based in urban areas are doing their all-out best to ban the practice.  The governor and spending advocates are obsessed with taxing it.  Supporters of a drilling tax vehemently object to any suggestion of eminent domain to compensate areas where a permanent drilling ban looms.

Tax proponents fall into two camps.  Those who want to increase state spending on various programs and purposes view this as the available golden goose.  This bounty is owned by all Pennsylvanians, so their argument goes.  Thus, the tax revenues derived would be used to support a state government superstructure that is tilted against rural residents in dozens of ways.  Then there are those who see this as a chance to financially drill the drillers, hoping to economically undermine an industry they could not stop through law or regulation.  Neither camp shows the slightest concern for the economic difficulties of rural areas and the consequences of adverse impacts.

The governor’s plan to finance a multi-faceted infrastructure package through a severance tax is no lure for rural areas.  While a tax will not kill the industry, it will cost jobs and opportunities, especially in conjunction with current low energy prices.  Plus, there is no reason to expect the distribution formulas for the money would be any more favorable toward rural areas.  Why pay the price?

There is absolutely nothing magical about a severance tax.  Politics propels it.  With deficient infrastructure all around, and project lists accumulating apace, Pennsylvania should act before more construction seasons are lost.  Raise a statewide tax to fund statewide projects.  If no one wants to lift the lids on existing taxes, create an infrastructure revitalization tax or cobble together an infrastructure revenue fund from a variety of sources.

Next time you hear someone pontificate about the burning necessity of an extraction tax, ask them how fair it is to extract more opportunity from the citizens of rural counties.  This context is missing from the exuberance of the pro-taxation forces and commentators.  For rural Pennsylvania, it shapes as another lose-lose proposition.

If we truly enjoy and celebrate the many advantages of rural Pennsylvania, then we have to dramatically readjust our state spending and economic policies to ensure that rural life advances, rather than declines into a death spiral.  Pennsylvania already has too many divides separating people and communities.  It is extremely short-sighted to widen the economic gap between areas expanding and shrinking in terms of population and opportunity.

The blessings and beauties of rural Pennsylvania should be available to succeeding generations in real time, not just in museums and nostalgic movies.  Wishing and hoping do not pay for effective protection and preservation.  Nor does punitive taxation.

David A. Atkinson is an Associate with The Susquehanna Valley Center’s Edward H. Arnold Institute for Public Policy.

Watch an interview with David Sanko of the PA State Association of Township Supervisors on  Behind the Headlines discussing some of the issues presented here.

The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Susquehanna Valley Center.

Nothing contained here should be considered as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any legislation.