Nutter facing tough task in Harrisburg

Posted: June 12, 2013

AT A PIVOTAL moment in the push to prevent drastic cuts for Philly schools, Mayor Nutter is traveling to Harrisburg today to build support for his plan to plug the district's budget gap, state lawmakers said.

It won't be an easy task.

Ultimately, Nutter is attempting to persuade a GOP-controlled General Assembly to let the city raise taxes. But first, Republicans say, he has to shore up support from Philadelphia Democrats and do it quickly. The city has until the end of the month to enact tax policy for next year.

"The city has to get on the same page. And when I say same page, I don't mean just, 'We want more money,' " said Steve Miskin, a spokesman for House Republican leader Mike Turzai. "They still have work to do to convince the people up here that raising taxes is the best approach."

State Sen. Larry Farnese is one of those people Nutter may need to convince.

Farnese, a Philly Democrat, is leery of a proposed increase in the "liquor-by-the-drink" tax, from 10 percent to 15 percent per bar tab. But he said he is willing to reconsider if the mayor can demonstrate that the liquor tax, along with a proposed $2-per-pack cigarette tax, can provide a long-term fix for the schools.

State Sen. Vincent Hughes, another Philly Democrat, said unity on the home front will give the proposals a better chance.

"Philadelphia senators are on board with giving as many tools as possible to the city to try to address this funding issue," Hughes said. "We've got to get more in sync with exactly which vehicles are going to be utilized."

Most lawmakers have not yet made public statements about the tax proposals, but a Senate staffer, who asked to remain anonymous to discuss private meetings, said there is little consensus in the delegation.

"It's a mess up here," the staffer said. "I don't see the kind of coordination that's going to be needed."

Nutter spokesman Mark McDonald said he was "not aware of the issue of discord."

"People have their own points of view, and this is a heavy lift," he said. "We're certainly working hard to get the votes."

One source of opposition may be a familiar Nutter nemesis: John Dougherty, the leader of the politically powerful electricians union who is also part-owner of Doc's Union Pub, in Pennsport.

"Johnny Doc," sources said, is urging some Council members and state lawmakers to oppose the increased booze tax.

In an interview, Dougherty said he opposes the tax hike but is not lobbying against it.

"I've never been a liquor-by-the-drink person," said Dougherty, adding that the measure would hurt small businesses.

The increase would generate an estimated $22 million more next year. The cigarette tax would fetch $45 million for the schools in its first year.

That's enough for the city to fulfill its requested aid, but the School Reform Commission is also asking for $120 million more from the state, plus $133 in savings from the teachers' union.

Speaking yesterday about the budget gap, which led to nearly 3,800 school-district employees receiving layoff notices last week, Nutter said drastic cuts "can be prevented by the actions of responsible adults.

"We've always known from the start this is going to be an uphill battle," he said. "But here's the thing: We faced in different environments greater challenges and when adults decide to do something, they can get it done."

A Council committee has advanced the cigarette tax. The liquor tax stalled but could be considered tomorrow.

On Twitter: @SeanWalshDN