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Nutter commits to schools, but not to raising taxes

This isn't the first time Mayor Nutter has been locked in a game of political chicken over how to manage the city's finances.

This isn't the first time Mayor Nutter has been locked in a game of political chicken over how to manage the city's finances.

With just weeks before the city must finalize a budget for the fiscal year starting July 1, Nutter has been lobbying hard in City Council to provide an additional $75 million to $110 million for the cash-strapped school district.

But unlike previous budget crises, when Nutter pitched a variety of unpopular tax hikes and cuts to close gaps, this time around he has not explained how he'd like to get the money - prompting critics to suggest he doesn't want to be the mayor who raises taxes three years running.

"I haven't seen a lot of leadership from the Mayor's Office," said former Managing Director Phil Goldsmith. "I understand the politics of it, but I don't understand how you can hold yourself up as a leader willing to make tough choices."

Supporters say Nutter is just playing an inside game.

"I think the mayor is 100 percent right for not fully fleshing out the contours of this commitment until the full package is in place," said Comcast's executive vice president, David L. Cohen, a former chief of staff to Mayor Ed Rendell.

Either way, the coming days will again test Nutter's mayoral mettle. And on budget negotiations, he has a mixed record. Nutter failed to get Council to enact a property-tax hike in 2009 or a sugary-drinks tax in 2010, with members opting for other tax hikes.

So far, few on Council have shown interest in another tax increase. Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell said she couldn't predict what would happen.

"We're fastly approaching the deadline and still don't know," Blackwell said.

So as time ticks down to spring's final Council session, June 16, the question is: Can Nutter get this done?

Nutter declined to be interviewed, but spokesman Mark McDonald said that Nutter has been busy talking with Gov. Corbett, Republican and Democratic leaders in the state House and state Senate and Council.

"We are all involved in public education in Philadelphia and resources do matter, and we all need to try to find a path forward that does not involve such deep cuts," said McDonald.

Publicly, Nutter has not said how he would raise up to $110 million for schools, although he opposes shifting property-tax revenues to the schools, which would create a hole in the city budget. That leaves a tax hike as the most likely option. With Council, Nutter approved a temporary sales-tax hike in 2009 and a temporary property-tax increase in 2010.

This year, Nutter and Council could again raise property taxes or they could revisit the sugary-drinks tax, which failed last year in the face of opposition from union labor and the soda lobby.

Asked if Nutter would consider a soda tax, McDonald said: "Many different ideas are being discussed in City Council and within the advocate community. We're just not commenting on any of these ideas at this point."

Still, some Council members said they want answers now.

"I'm still waiting for the mayor to clearly articulate what his position is," said Councilman Bill Green, a frequent critic of the mayor's policies and a likely mayoral candidate in 2015.

Green also questioned why Nutter did not speak on schools until after his primary win, saying: "There was an opportunity for the mayor, who was going to win his primary, to say, 'If you re-elect me, I'm going to increase taxes or provide cuts for the schools.' "

McDonald said the time wasn't right to talk until now. He also said Nutter isn't shying away from tax talk because of fears of a possible general-election challenge from former Mayor John Street, who could enter the race as an independent.

Of course, this schools-funding crisis is a problem with moving parts. As Nutter encourages Council to provide more city funding, he's also lobbying Harrisburg lawmakers to kick in more.

State Sen. Vincent Hughes, who last week petitioned Council to provide more schools funding, said Nutter is making inroads in the Capitol. Hughes said the state budget should be finished before the end of June.

"I know the mayor has walked the halls of Harrisburg, meeting with the leadership of the House and the Senate," Hughes said. "The reports that I'm getting back from my Republican colleagues have been that he's been doing a pretty good job."

Staff writer Jan Ransom contributed to this report.