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Rebranding the Keystone State

by Eric Boehm
The next time you’re making a cross-border shopping trip to Delaware, you might notice something new. No, don’t worry, Delaware isn’t instituting a sales tax. But coming back into Pennsylvania, there will be a new sign, with a quirky new font and a brand new slogan welcoming visitors to the Keystone State.

“Pennsylvania: Pursue Your Happiness.” It’s the state’s new slogan, living proof that even while the state government is gridlocked on all the important issues, Harrisburg can still do things that are superficial at best and pointless at worst.

“Embark upon your own personal happiness adventure,” says the state’s official tourism website, VisitPA.com, as if it were that girl you know from college who skipped class every day for yoga. “Whoever you are, no matter what you love to do, know that happiness is Pennsylvania’s keystone. It always has been.”

Aside from the nod to the opening stanza of the Declaration of Independence, it’s just a pithy platitude that says nothing unique about Pennsylvania, and that’s only one of the reasons why the new slogan misses the mark.

Don’t be fooled, there’s nothing really wonderful about the old state slogan, either. “State of Independence,” is what it was, for those of you who don’t know. Sure, it’s an obvious reference to the founding of the country, to the Declaration of Independence, signed in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall. But these days, that spirit of independence is sorely lacking. Try to turn your car into an Uber so you can give a tourist a ride to Independence Hall and you’ll see what I mean.

There’s a chance you might be stopped by undercover agents of the Philadelphia Parking Authority, which has been running sting operations as a way to stop people from using Uber in Philadelphia. Ride-sharing competes with the city’s taxis, you see, and the PPA has a tight relationship with taxi companies, so you’re not allowed to make a little extra cash with your car because it might cause the six-figure value of a taxi medallion to drop a little. Independence, indeed.

The old slogan was selected by Gov. Ed Rendell in 2004 after a statewide contest was held, with more than 20,000 residents submitting ideas. Before that, there was the vaguely creepy “You’ve Got A Friend In Pennsylvania” slogan.

Wolf’s change, though, springs forth from the heads of consultants hired by the state’s official tourism bureau. The state paid those consultants $250,000 to come up with the new slogan. It will cost taxpayers another $500,000 to replace the old slogan with the new one on state welcome signs, pamphlets and other pro-tourism paraphernalia.

In the grand scheme of a $30 billion state budget, three-quarters of a million dollars isn’t a whole lot of money. Still, it’s worth wondering if it might not have been better spent filling in a few of Pennsylvania’s notorious potholes. Or, since schools are in such bad financial shape across the entire state, it could have been used to pay the salaries of a dozen public school teachers.

But the biggest problem with the new slogan is that it’s facing the wrong direction. People aren’t coming into Pennsylvania to pursue their happiness. Increasingly, they are leaving. Pennsylvania experienced a net loss of 41,000 people—equal to the entire population of a midsized city like Wilkes-Barre—last year. It was the fourth consecutive year the state saw a net loss of population.

Despite the drain, statistics show that Pennsylvania continues to gain population from other northeastern states where taxes and regulations are higher. New Yorkers and New Jerseyites are pursuing their happiness (and lower taxes) into the Commonwealth, but Pennsylvanians are, for the same reasons, leaving at a faster rate for Florida, Texas and other lower-tax states.

It’s not hard to figure out why. The infrastructure needs rebuilding, the schools are a mess and the people who are supposed to be dealing with those issues can’t put aside partisan politics long enough to even pass a budget (or sign one that has been passed, in Wolf’s case). The state’s high level of debt, school funding crisis and tsunami of pension obligations mean that, sooner or later, anyone still left in Pennsylvania is going to be hit with tax increases of one form or another. It’s no wonder many people are heading for the door.

Maybe the governor’s office should instruct the tourism bureau to print the new slogan in reverse lettering—like the word “ambulance” on the front of an ambulance—so it can be read in the rear-view mirrors of the cars driving out of Pennsylvania in pursuit of more happiness elsewhere.

Published (and copyrighted) in Philly Biz, Volume 1, Issue 4 (March, 2016).
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