R.I.P. Tax Cutter Mike Nutter

Cost cutting's harder when you're the guy who has to hand out the layoff notices

See if you can identify this unnamed elected official:

“We cannot grow, or even preserve, our revenue base unless we cut taxes.”
Tax reductions, “are all about jobs. The fiscally responsible thing we can do is lower the tax burden so businesses can grow.”
“In whatever capacity I’m speaking out, I’ll continue to push for tax cuts.”

Who is that tax-cutting champion? Is it Sen. Pat Toomey? Gov. Corbett or Gov. Christie? No. Those words—and many more like them—were all spoken by Michael Nutter before he was mayor.

The same guy, in other words, who is proposing this week to raise taxes a third straight year. Since taking office, Nutter has presided over a sales tax increase, a 10 percent property tax hike and a freeze on scheduled city-funded wage tax cuts passed in the Street administration (cuts that Councilman Nutter championed). There’s a new garbage fee for small businesses and apartment buildings and higher taxes for tobacco sellers and parking lot operators.

And that’s just what Nutter’s actually gotten passed. He tried but failed for a single-family home trash fee in 2009. And he’s working Council hard this week to get a tax on sugary drinks passed to come up with some cash for the school district. If that fails, property taxes could be going up. Again.

So what the hell happened to Mike Nutter, tax cutter?

A lot of things. First, of course, was the economy. It tanked, and so do the city’s budget. Although a lot of taxpayers grumble that Nutter has just taxed his way out of the crisis, that’s not really the case. He has cut spending sharply, just perhaps not as sharply as you’d expect for a guy who built his pre-mayoral career on the concept of tax-cutting.

Second, Nutter discovered that it’s a lot easier to take potshots from Council then it is to actually run something as big and complex as the City of Philadelphia. It’s all well and good to talk in macro-economic terms from the floor of City Council about growing the revenue base by cutting taxes to attract jobs and businesses. But when you’re the guy who has to issue the layoff notices in the event lower taxes don’t immediately grow the tax base, it’s harder to pull the trigger.

Another factor is that—in Philadelphia, at least—it is politically easier to raise taxes than to cut services, as Nutter discovered in the library debacle. Ever since then, Nutter has steered well clear of big, high-profile cuts to services. He’s made ends meet instead with tax hikes and spending cut half-measures like rolling blackouts at fire stations and unpredictable library hours.

Finally, I think it’s become pretty clear that the Nutter of 2011 has a different view of government and the value of government services than the Nutter of old. Maybe it’s because he’s the one responsible for providing the services. Or maybe he appreciates their value more after seeing their citywide impact.

Whatever the cause, Mayor Nutter has different priorities than Councilman Nutter. And tax cuts—a cause that helped put him in the mayor’s office—now appear to be off his agenda entirely.