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It’s ‘Groundhog Day’ for permitting reform in Pennsylvania

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(The Center Square) — Like Bill Murray’s Phil Connors character in “Groundhog Day” repeating his day in Punxsutawney, the Senate’s budget hearings with the Department of Environment Protection center on permitting reform year after year after year.

“Ever since I’ve been in the Senate, the delay in permitting and how permits are issued in Pennsylvania has been an issue,” said Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Williamsport, who was first elected in 2008.

Indeed, last year’s hearings had then-DEP Secretary Richard Negrin saying his department carried the responsibility for deficient permits and the slow processing times.

Yaw argued the problem for business growth wasn’t tied to environmental hurdles, but bureaucratic ones.

“Several years ago, there was a company that told me ‘we can deal with any environmental issues,” he said. “‘What we can’t deal with is delay.’ Pennsylvania should be embarrassed about delay.”

Gov. Shapiro has made much of his push for permitting reform across state agencies. However, even with funding increases to hire DEP permitting staffers, months-long delays still happen. Nor is Pennsylvania’s penchant for long permitting periods a secret, even beyond national borders. Businesses across the Pacific Ocean have become wary of the commonwealth.

“I was recently in Taiwan and they’re willing and able to come. We are now internationally known as having problems getting permits in a timely fashion,” said Sen. Tracy Pennycuick, R-Red Hill. “Other states exploit that.”

DEP officials acknowledged that delays are a problem, but highlighted their efforts to speed up the process. Acting Interim Secretary Jessica Shirley pointed to its permitting backlog reduction plan, which has reduced the department’s permitting backlog by 30% month-over-month since December.

As it ramps up, officials expect the process to be less burdensome, especially for the most common permits.

“As it ramps up, this process will eliminate a lot of that churn you’re getting. It is a problem, we acknowledge that; and that is part of what we’ve been working on through our streamlined permit modernization plan,” Shirley said. “We have made some improvements. It’s not fixed — you cannot fix something this massive in a year. It’s going to take time and investment.”

Until officials deliver, though, the department remains a target for sardonic humor.

“There is a running joke in the southwest here and it’s not very funny, but they said that DEP stands for ‘Don’t Expect a Permit,’” said Sen. Pat Stefano, R-Connellsville. “I want to work with you to change that perception.”

To that end, DEP wants to upgrade its IT system — the last major update happened in 1994. But the fundamental holdup, according to DEP leaders, is long-term understaffing.

“Since 2006, the department was cut significantly and we lost a large amount of staff — specifically in some of our permitting programs,” Shirley said. “That’s why this year we’re asking for 40 additional staff. We got 30 new staff last year, we’re asking for another 40 this year specifically to address permitting. But that is still far below where we were in the early 2000s.”

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