HARRISBURG — Gov. Josh Shapiro authorized the creation of a new executive office on Tuesday toward fostering large-scale economic development projects and serving as a go-between for entrepreneurs and public sector agencies to make such developments more efficient.
The Pennsylvania Office of Transformation and Opportunity and the related Economic Development Strategy Group were created through executive order — Shapiro’s third in his first week in office.
The other orders stripped degree requirements for most jobs in state government and also eased a strict gift ban put in place by his predecessor.
At a press conference announcing the move, Shapiro said Pennsylvania government must act more quickly and be more responsive as economic developments are considered and carried out.
Shapiro cited environmental permitting as one area in need of faster action.
He referred to the choice by Pittsburgh-based U.S. Steel to build a $3 billion mill in Arkansas rather than Pennsylvania which, according to Bloomberg, will employ fewer, nonunion labor than its mills in Western Pennsylvania.
That state’s former governor, Asa Hutchinson, quipped that it takes less time to build a steel factory in Arkansas than it does to get a permit for one in Pennsylvania.
“I recognize that time is money and that government needs to act quickly to respond,” Shapiro said. “I plan to be personally involved and engaged in this work. You will have the governor’s ear.”
Shapiro tapped entrepreneur and digital marketing expert Ben Kirschner to lead the new office, becoming its Chief Transformation and Opportunity Officer. The governor said the new office will prevent the need to go to five different agency offices and staff for varied requirements, streamlining development.
The governor said the office will connect business and industry with the state’s workforce, universities and research institutions and the public sector.
According to the executive order, the office will be tasked to manage economic development projects, monitor progress, coordinate efforts across multiple state agencies and expedite permitting and licensing reviews and work with the Department of Community and Economic Development to maximize potential federal funding opportunities.
Time-based standards will be enacted for such projects and established objectives and targets for “transformative economic development projects” will be prioritized by the governor, the order states.
Rick Siger, acting secretary, DCED, said the new office would become a “force multiplier,” helping Pennsylvania win major business projects and ignite its economy.
“It’s not just a symbolic step,” Siger said.
The Office of Transformation and Opportunity will be housed in the governor’s office and its staff will be paid from existing budget lines, Shapiro said.
The governor himself will chair the new strategy group which will include Kirschner along with the secretaries of Labor & Industry, Community and Economic Development, Transportation, Agriculture, Education and Environmental Protection.
According to the governor’s office, the group will directly advise Shapiro on economic development projects and processes to attract and retain employers, recruit innovation leaders, and create good-paying jobs in Pennsylvania, particularly in underserved communities.
Tuesday’s press conference brought together representatives of labor and business.
Angela Ferritto of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO said her union has 700,000 members. Hearing Shapiro talk about energy development and job creation, she said, “to me, that means union jobs.”
Luke Bernstein, president and CEO, Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, spoke of the need to revamp Pennsylvania’s “outdated permitting process,” its regulatory environment and “antiquated tax structure.”
He cited lawmakers’ move last year to begin phased cuts to Pennsylvania’s Corporate Net Income Tax, eventually dropping it from 9.99% to 4.99%. And, he said, there’s talk of Shapiro’s administration expediting that decrease.