Pennsylvania needs a plan to fund infrastructure projects that are essential to the future and success of its residents, including making broadband internet accessible in every community, said Gov. Tom Wolf.

During a Friday visit to Waynesburg Central Elementary School in Greene County, Wolf said he had the perfect backdrop to announce Restore Pennsylvania, an infrastructure initiative that would allow the state to invest $4.5 billion over the next four years to accomplish a number of projects, including connecting Pennsylvanians through widespread broadband internet expansion.

“The future of Pennsylvania starts right here,” Wolf said to guests in attendance that included members of student council, staff and school board members from Central Greene School District.

Greene County is one of the counties in the state with rural communities that either have limited connectivity, or in some case no online connection at all. The county’s residents aren’t alone, said Wolf, noting nearly 1 million Pennsylvanians do not have access to robust, reliable high-speed internet.

He said that’s just not good enough.

“We must close the digital divide to ensure every citizen has the access it needs to connect to the ever-expanding digital world in which we live and work. Our students, parents and teachers deserve better, and we can provide that through Restore Pennsylvania,” Wolf said.

The governor said Restore Pennsylvania would be funded by a “common sense severance tax” on the gas industry. The initiative also would fund other projects such as the removal of blight in communities, storm preparedness, disaster recovery and flood mitigation.

“I’m tired of coming to these areas and saying ‘I’m sorry for your loss,’” added Wolf, who said he would like to be able to instead say, ‘I’m sorry for your loss and here’s how we can help.’”

Every time Pennsylvanians purchase products produced in other states, they pay a severance tax, which is embedded in the cost. Wolf said it’s Pennsylvania’s turn to invest in the future by using a reasonable severance tax that could be enabled immediately by taxing the natural gas sector.

According to Wolf, Pennsylvania remains the only gas-producing state in the country without a severance tax. With every passing year, Pennsylvania is losing out on significant opportunities to reinvest those funds to stimulate the economy and move Pennsylvania forward into the 21st century, he said.

The school district supports Wolf’s initiative, which is why officials were pleased to be selected as the place for his announcement.

“The Central Greene School District is proud to embrace Gov. Wolf’s proposal to expand high-speed internet in rural communities,” said Superintendent Helen McCracken.

McCracken said while the district has students who are “digital natives” and have access to the internet 24/7, many students do not. That puts them at a distinct disadvantage, which educators call the “homework gap,” referring to students who don’t even have enough coverage to complete their assignments at home.

“We owe our children and our school community broadband internet access, which should not be a function of who you are or where you are from; it should be a rite of passage to academic achievement, communication and future success. It’s what our students and community deserve, so that we may compete equally now and in the future,” she said.

Through Restore Pennsylvania, grants would be available to support the installation of infrastructure to bring high-speed internet to every corner of the state, along with other initiatives funded by the $4.5 billion suggested investment.

After the event, the governor said he believes there’s support for the plan on both sides of the political aisle and looks forward to added opportunities to explain the plan across the commonwealth.

“One of the things I hear most often that (legislators) hate is unfounded mandates from my office. This is a funded non-mandate,” Wolf said.

For the Observer-Reporter

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