Open Government

Open government is, like, sooooo last year

During the Mayoral campaign in 2007, we had one candidate who established himself as the open government guy, and even came up with a whole plan on how we would open up government.

Promises are easy to make in an election. I am the only candidate for Mayor who has actually achieved ethics reform anywhere - in Philadelphia, Harrisburg, or Washington D.C.

That was, of course, Mayoral candidate Mike Nutter. Then Mr. Nutter got more specific:

Promote greater public access to meetings and hearings convened by City departments, agencies and commissions including holding more sessions during evening hours and providing transcripts on the City’s web site, including all City Council votes.

And...

Require all quasi-City agencies and authorities to conduct the public’s business in the open and to make documents accessible.

I wonder, does his intent to make quasi-public agencies conducting "the public's business in the open" extend to hmself and to City Council? If not, that would be a little weird, right?

Oh, guess not:

Mayor Nutter continues to lock reporters out of what they consider to be public meetings of City Council. All but one of Council's 17 members are right now in a 14th floor conference room of the Municipal Services Building for a budget briefing by Nutter, who will make public tomorrow his plans to deal with $841 million gap in the city's five year financial plan.

City officials stationed an armed guard from the MSB's security staff outside the conference room and locked the door when reporters showed up on the 14th floor. Other reporters were briefly forbidden to even take the elevator up to the 14th floor in the public building during business hours.

City Solicitor Shelley Smith, who has issued a legal opinion for Nutter saying the public can be barred from a briefing where a quorum of Council is present, denied a request this afternoon from the Daily News to allow reporters inside. Most Council members cited Smith's opinion when asked if they were about to attend a public meeting. "We're being told it isn't," Council President Anna Verna said as she entered. "We're not having a public meeting, according to the city solicitor," Councilman Bill Green said. "As long as the city solicitor says it's OK, it's OK with me," said Brian O'Neall, the Republican minority leader.

Nutter stood by the position that the meeting is briefing and not open to the public. "There will be no decisions made. We have to update the council on financial matters," Nutter added.

Super. So, now the Daily News and Inquirer have resorted to suing Nutter to get him to conduct "public’s business in the open."

I guess open government is just, like, soooo last year. So what if Council is talking about 900 million dollars worth of a deficit and layoffs and budget cuts. Don't you Philadelphians worry your pretty little heads about it!

The City Commits- in Writing- to Providing Election Returns for All

On Friday afternoon, the City committed to produce electronic election results for all to see. In her interview with Mike Dunn of KYW, City Solicitor Shelley Smith already said they were going to do this, but, it sure is nice to see it in writing:

The City is currently developing a system to allow the public access to a hosted website where election results will be provided. The plan for the next election in November is to provide near real time summary results and the ability to drill down into election details (ward-by-ward, division-by-division, etc) on this hosted website. Polling data and returns should be updated approximately every 10 to 15 minutes as the returns are verified by the City Commissioners. Furthermore, there will be a link on both the City of Philadelphia's main homepage and the City Commissioner's homepage directing interested users to this hosted website.

And, those treasured passwords will become largely useless for the average person, and will now be strictly restricted:

The system for which you request access to is only equipped to handle 150-200 users at one time. Going forward, access will be strictly limited to employees of the City Commissioners and the personnel from the Department of State. These employees will use the internal system to provide needed returns and data to both the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the new hosted site (explained in detail below). No passwords for this internal system will be provided to anyone outside of this group.

That makes sense, especially from a security perspective.

So, given what they have committed to doing, and the new role passwords will have, the City has en masse denied all the requests for passwords. If you want to appeal, instructions are in the letter. My unsolicited advice though, is to let it be, because this is clearly happening. Yes, there is always a chance something could get screwed up. But, I feel pretty confident that this will all happen. (Next push from an interested party who wants to make a difference: Historical results.)

There are some people in this whole thing who have been really helpful. First, thanks to Jim Kenney, the only Councilperson to quickly respond when this whole saga began, for his help behind the scenes. Having the Mayor jump in was A-OK, too. And, Shelley Smith, the City Solicitor, came out on the side of open government, and forced the hand of the Commissioners, by granting my original appeal. They could have made this harder on us than they did. So, to our friends in the City Solicitor’s Office, sorry for being collective pains in the ass. I wish I could say this is the last you will have to deal with us. But, somehow, I doubt it.

And, of course, a lot of credit for this has to go to Ed Goppelt of Hallwatch. Ed was opening up Philly government before it was cool.

But, most of all, to the 400 or so people who requested passwords, pat yourselves on the back. Publishing election returns will not end poverty in Philadelphia. It will not fix the schools. Hey, for that matter, it won’t bring our troops home from Iraq, either. But it is a basic function of government that should be provided, yet hasn’t been. By November, it appears that will change.

I'm Sparta... I am Ed Goppelt!

I'm Ed Goppelt!

You are Ed Goppelt. And so are you. And you. And you, too.

What am I talking about? Well, we heard from the Solicitor’s Office on Friday about the election returns issue. Specifically, they sent a letter to Ed- creator of Hallwatch and owner of the faxbank we all used. The letter said that because all the requests came from one fax machine, the Law Department was treating them as one request…

The City received at least 250 identical requests, all of which originated from your fax machine, and as such, we are treating them as one request for the purposes of our response to you.

Upon first read, I was pretty disappointed about that. Except after thinking about it for a few minutes (and especially the part that says... "for the purposes of responding..."), the rest of the letter makes clear that they are still dealing with the main problem:

…in light of the myriad of technological and security issues your request raises, the Law Department must review the request under the Pennsylvania Right to Know Act…

In other words, they are dealing with the underlying issue: that more people have requested passwords than the Commissioners' system appears ready to deal with, and so they need thirty days to come up with an answer. That is fair, and as I told them, the goal was not to force a lot of work on the Law Department, but to open election returns to everyone. In other words, I am not too upset about City lawyers not spending their time on mail merges, as long as they are actually considering the real issue.

(And, not to get too much into palace intrigue here, but much of this was made possible by the fact that City Solicitor Shelley Smith granted my appeal, overruling the Commissioners when they said they would not give me a password. Thus far, the Law Department itself has come down on the side of open government. That is a good sign, in general.)

In terms of whether I think we will get a 'win'... As Sean noted, the Philly Election site is in fact down at the moment. I am not sure if that is a coincidence, but I do know that with 350+ individual requests, people in City Hall have started to work behind the scenes to fix this.

I am cautiously optimistic that the next letter Ed (however many Ed’s there really are) gets will say that his request has been made moot, because the data is now freely available to all citizens on the City of Philadelphia website.

News and Notes

1) When we started our Open Records Request fax bank, I thought that 50 people asking for passwords would be enough to send a clear message, and force the City Commissioners' to come up with a commonsense solution to keeping election returns password protected. Instead, it got over 250, from Hallwatch's email, to mentions on Philebrity, the Clog, Clout, It's our City, and elsewhere.

So, 250 people requested to have the same access to election results as connected politicians. There is an easy solution, too: just set up something to spit out the data. How come I think it will not be so simple?

2) There is a story in the Inquirer today about the 10,000 men effort, which has so far not come close to living up to its goals. There is a lot to take away from it, but for people interested in progressive politics and organizing, this piece is instructive:

Outwardly, the organization appears to have stalled. It opened an office at 1501 Christian St. in a property owned by Kenny Gamble, the entertainment mogul and one of the organization's high-profile founders. But with no paid staff, the headquarters is open only by appointment, Bond said.

And the 10,000 Men Web site (www.10000menphilly.com) has not been updated in months. It still headlines an April 5 Community Action Fair to encourage volunteerism, the organization's biggest public event since its inaugural rally.

Lets say 10,000 men were really going to volunteer, for a mix of street patrols and mentorship/ community service. How can that happen without full time organizers? The answer is that barring a miracle, it cannot. And even here, where this is organizing about street violence that directly impacts people's lives in this City.

So, if you/we are instead trying to motivate people for your host of other progressive issues- all of which may be important, but most of which will have less direct tangible effects than violence, how can it be done without actually paying people to do it? Long-term, it cannot.

If we as progressives want change, we have to figure out how to pay for it.

3) I should have added a link to it a while ago, but, if you are not reading SEPTA Watch, you should be.

Take two minutes to open up election results to everyone.

Even if it is kicking and screaming, you now have the chance to help bring the City Government one step closer to the modern age, by forcing them to provide all citizens with access to electronic voting results. But, first, for those who have not been following this, here is a quick recap of where we are:

  • The City Commissioners publish election returns online, behind a firewall, where only a small group of people can view them.
  • I requested a password, which they denied, stating that their system only allows 150 people to be online at once. (They also mentioned they are getting in a new shipment of slide rulers, and that their dictaphone needs repairs.)
  • Vince Fumo alone has 10 of those 150 passwords
  • The City Solicitor granted my appeal, ruling that password protecting election results for your buddies is in violation of any notion of open government and the PA Open Records law. So, I have my password. Maybe they thought this would end the whole thing? If so, they severely underestimated how annoying I am.

Does me having a password really get us anywhere closer to the goal of open access for everyone? Not really, but, the ruling from the City Solicitor does, and that is where you come in. Today, in partnership with Hallwatch and with help from Philly for Change, we are launching a faxbank, where with the City Solicitor's ruling in hand, you can send in your own open records request to the City, asking for your own password.

Here is the basic idea: If the City Commissioners want to plead technological incompetence, we are going to use the ruling from the City Solicitor to force their hand. If we can get 25, or 50, or 100 people to request their own passwords, the Commissioners will be forced to make a decision: Take the small, easy step of putting election results online for all Philadelphians, or take away electronic access for their buddies.

Which do you think they will choose?

But, this only will work if you help. So, can you take 2 minutes and to open up Philadelphia government, and then spread the word? Click here, and lets get this done.

Election results are not supposed to be a perk for the connected few. And they should not fall under a constituent service. This. is. a. democracy. These. are. election. results.

Filling out a request is incredibly easy, and the City has to respond to you within 30 days. Please fill one out, spread the word to any and all who might be interested, and of course, let us know how the office responds.

I can view election results and you cannot, suckers!

I thought I would update everyone on where things stand with the crazy notion of letting everyone see election results online.

First, a month or so ago, I appealed the City's decision to deny me a password- the decision that gave us the magical 150 person limit for viewing electronic returns. (The appeal was with the Solicitor; next step was to Court.) In that appeal I also requested additional information, including how much the City charges for access to election results, how they decide who gets passwords for free, public notice they have put out to let people know that they can ask for a password to view results, and a list of who has these magical 150 passwords.

The City broke down my request into two streams: My new request for information from the Commissioners' Office, and my appeal of the initial decision.

The first response I got back was about the new pieces of information, and largely refused to answer my questions, including how much they actually charge. However, the one piece of information they did provide was the one piece I thought they would not: a list of who has these passwords. That is mostly what the Daily News focused on: the people who have access to voting returns, while the average citizen does not. And yes, it is pretty bizarre that they deny an average citizen access to results, while giving Fumo's Office ten of 150 passwords.

Then, late last week, on the same day the Daily News story came out, the Solicitor responded to and granted my appeal, and ruled that the Commissioners Office had to give me a password.

So, the bottom line is, I have a password and you don't. Suckers! Now, I am done with this whole annoying ordeal. But, in positive news for you all, I will rent access to the password for ten dollars a day, plus four chocolate chip cookies.

Anyway, I used the magical password to log in, to see what all the fuss was about. It took about two seconds to see what the problem was/is. Basically, those 150 passwords are for users to log into the actual voting system software. No one in the public needs that- we just need them to export the data so that the public can see it. I also asked YPP user ELP to take a look at it, knowing he is a computer guy. And, as I assumed he would, ELP quickly came up with a number of fixes. Additionally, in terms of whether this is all feasible for the City to do, he pointed me to this, from the website of the company the City uses, describing the benefits of their product:

- Easy to export results to other media or systems including the World Wide Web.

Um, right.

So, where do we go from here? Well, that is coming. The granting of the appeal was an important step, but in reality, just a small one. At the end of the day, we still don't yet have public access to the results. I will have more on how you can help very soon.

Election Returns Story in the Daily News

Our effort to bring the City Commissioners into the 21st Century has hit the Daily News:

Philadelphia taxpayers have spent $20 million over the last five years to upgrade the city's voting machinery, permitting a rapid, computerized vote count on election night.

But the general public has little to show for it.

On election night, there's no public access to the vote count. News organizations pay hundreds of dollars to the city to see voting returns on a password-protected Internet site. But dozens of political VIPs get election-night access for free.

The three city commissioners, in charge of the city election machinery, have been providing free Internet passwords to a group of public officials, political-party bigwigs and others with the right connections.

On the night of the April 22 primary election, they got to see unofficial, ward-by-ward returns - information that the city commissioners still have not posted on their public Web site, more than two months after the election.

State Sen. Vincent Fumo got 10 free passwords - at least twice as many as he needed, according to his office. Councilman Jim Kenney got five and attorney Kevin Greenberg, who represents the commissioners in a federal voting-rights case, got six.

John Dougherty, the electricians union leader who ran to replace Fumo in the Senate, got one free password, and the union's political director, Bobby Henon, got two.

And the Commissioners tell us, that jeez, its hard to put these things online:

"It's not as easy as it sounds," said Deputy City Commissioner Renee Tartaglione, daughter of commissioners' chairwoman, Margaret Tartaglione.

She said that the city's vote-counting equipment, manufactured by Danaher Controls, allows Internet access to no more than 150 people at once, requiring the city to limit the number of passwords it provides.

"That's a really, really goofy excuse," replied Urevick-Ackelsberg. "You could pay a [tech-savvy] kid $12 an hour to come up with a fix to that limit, just taking those results and spitting them out onto a public Web site."

150 passwords. Ten Passwords for Fumo, none for you... That is the thing: Not only is it a goofy excuse, it sort of misses the point. Because if you are looking for a section of law that says 'ol Vince and Co. should have super duper special access to our elections, keep looking, because it doesn't exist.

As the article notes, Jim Kenney has a bunch of those passwords, too. To his credit, Jim has been the only person in office to try and help us. I sent my first request to a million different politicians, and most people didn't bother to respond. He did, within a day. His office talked to Marge and Co., and found out about the magical 150 number. And he offered to get us whatever numbers we needed. While his offer of help was most appreciated, seeing election returns really should not have to fall under a constituent service.

We will have more later today, including the letter the Commissioner's Office sent me (where they would not even tell me how much they charge), and the magical list of passwords they gave out. We will also have a way that anyone who is interested in this can help force their hand. In fact, members of Philly for Change started that process just last night.

The City Denies Our Election Return Request. We Appeal.

Greetings from Poland, a land of many processed meats.

Last month we requested that the City Commissioners' Office, whose only job is to oversee elections- put detailed election returns online. Seems sort of basic in 2008, right?

Well, we were denied, basically with a plea of technological incompetence. The City said that they have created a system where only 150 people at a time can look at results, or else everything crashes. Can someone remind me why we pay the salary of three elected officials for this?

At any rate, today we appealed, with a very sweet and kind letter, the text of which is below.

The catch is that we have been told by multiple sources that Commissioners' office charges some groups (the media generally) a bunch of money for access, while giving away access to other people. This has raised a whole new set of questions.

Going through this long of a process, just to see election returns is a real "only in Philadelphia" moment...

This letter is to formally appeal the June 6th decision of the City Commissioners Office, denying our request for unofficial election results. We believe the decision is incorrect under Pennsylvania’s right-to-know law and the Commissioners’ own mission statement. Additionally, because the decision raises additional questions about how the Commissioners’ deliver city services, we now expand our request.

Despite the fact the City receives voting returns electronically (from a multi-million dollar, voter-approved upgrade to voting machines less than ten years ago), you have offered to let us, days after the election, view paper printouts of election returns. For an office that only has one real job, overseeing elections, and a generous budget, we find this response lacking and inconsistent with PA right-to-know law. 65 P.S. § 66.1 et seq.

Furthermore, the response has only raised additional question and concerns about how the Commissioners’ Office functions. We are of information and belief that the Commissioners’ Office has given away a number of passwords to certain individuals and campaigns, allegedly for free. As such, your denial of our request raises additional questions about how your office decides who is worthy of receiving one of the 150 passwords that you say are available, and how you decide to charge them. To put it mildly, it is not the role of an elected officer to decide which citizens get to view election returns and which do not. Nor is it acceptable to grant free access to some, while charging others.

We believe that, generally, right-to-know statutes don’t deal well with requests for election returns because it is unthinkable that in a democracy in 2008, some citizens can view voting records instantly, while others cannot.

And so, in addition to appealing your decision, we now request the following:

1) The exact price the city charges for access to election returns. Please include any and all contract terms, as well as the Commissioners’ justification for those terms under the ‘reasonable fee’ standard of electronic access under the PA right-to know-law. Please include receipts of all payments received from the last 24 months.
2) The exact number of passwords the office has given out, along with how much each recipient was charged (including if they were charged nothing).
3) Any and all guidance from the Commissioners’ Office on who may receive a password to examine returns, and whether that password shall be free.
4) Any and all public notice from the Commissioners’ Office to notify the public that citizens may apply for a password.
5) A list of all those people who have free passwords to examine election data.

We find your plea of technological incompetence to be troubling for an office whose sole purpose is to oversee elections. That said, we find it even more troubling that it appears you are using that excuse to grant privileged access to the connected few.

Very truly yours,

/s/
Dan Urevick-Ackelsberg

Open Government can be so pesky

Open government can be a real pain in the butt.

It is something easy to promise during a campaign. And there are some facets of open government that are easy and palatable- like the Mayor putting his daily itinerary online. But, and I mean this without any sarcasm whatsoever- truly open government can be a real pain for those in power. That is true even for a new Mayor who I think genuinely believes in transparency and sunshine.

I bring this up because yesterday, this happened:

Mayor Nutter, who ran for office on a promise of making City Hall business more transparent, yesterday tried to have reporters removed from a budget briefing that he held for City Council.

A Nutter aide, joined by a police officer, insisted that the briefing was a private matter. Reporters, citing the state's Sunshine Act on public meetings, refused to leave.

After some debate, Nutter started the briefing by saying that the briefing could be private if Council didn't deliberate or make any decisions.

"I'm not going to waste anybody's time arguing about it," said Nutter, adding that he reserves the right in the future to hold private briefings.

Reporters remained for the 30-minute briefing.

The article summarizes the Sunshine Act pretty effectively, and I encourage you to read it. What they Mayor was trying to do was to get around the Act so that he and Council could negotiate on the budget, making any official meetings more formalities than anything else. This is a page straight out of the worst days of the SEPTA Board, where they would meet privately, decide to hike fares, then publicly come out and vote. It is unacceptable for a guy who campaigned the way Nutter did, with ambitious promises about how government would conduct its business.

I really hope those close to the Mayor will hold him accountable here, because his position- that he can meet in private as long as he gives a legalistic definition of "deliberations," is far from the best practices of open government that he promised. I don't think this means he is evil or doesn't think open government is a good thing. But, I do think it shows that certain promises are a lot easier to make when you aren't in power. And when you really have a couple things you would like to hash out with City Council without those damn reporters listening in, this is what you do.

Additionally, you can read between the lines a little and tell that the media present in the room felt bullied by the Mayor to leave (ie, the presence of the police officer, etc). So, to the City Hall press corp- from Patrick Kerkstra of the Inquirer, and Catherine Lucey and Chris Brennan of the Daily News, to Mike Dunn from KYW and Susan Phillips of WHYY (see her account at It's Our Money)- a big, big thank you comes from all of us who believe in both the importance of the media as a watchdog, and in open government generally.

Later today, we will have yet another official open records request for the City. In the meantime though, it is cool that members of the local media have the back of those who believe that sunshine is the biggest disinfectant.

Who Do Business Tax Cuts Benefit?

A while back, we requested a bunch of data from the City on business tax records. The idea was that before we start cutting taxes more, we should look at the data, so that we can use reality-based policy making. (See here and here.) The City said they needed thirty days to respond to their request. The solicitor told us that, in effect, as long as names of businesses were shielded, it was our right to get the information. However, thus far, the Department of Revenue has only given us a small piece of information. So, with the legal opinion of their own law department saying they are obligated under the law to give us the info, we are going to try one more time. (More on this new request in a follow-up post.)

However, we did get a small piece of info from the City so far, and at the very least, we can see just who these tax cuts benefit. The chart below divides the 77,000 payers of the BPT (in 2006) into two categories: The first (the red bars) is businesses that paid over $100,000 in business taxes. There are 446 of these. The second category is everyone else- the 76,600 payers of the BPT that paid less than 100,000 in taxes in 2006. They represent 99.5% of the number of BPT payers.

The second and third sets of columns show us two main numbers: how much each category of business would save from elimination of the gross receipts tax, and how much each category of business would save from cutting the net income tax from 6.5% to 4%.

I had to put those blue arrows in, because otherwise, it is hard to see how much the bottom 99.5% of Philly businesses save from BPT cuts- $574 a year from net income cuts (over a long period of time), and $734 a year from the elimination of the gross receipts tax. The net income tax cut, for example, would be about enough for 99.5% of Philadelphia businesses to hire one minimum wage worker for all of... two weeks. I know it is called job killing and all that by Philly Forward and the like, but... I don't see it.

The vast majority of Philly businesses don't get a whole lot from tax cuts. How about the 446 that make up the top one-half of one percent? They do just fine. As the red bars show, the two tax cuts net them $149,000 and $77,000 bucks a year, respectively. The top 0.5 percent of our businesses together take over 50% of the total tax breaks.

Again, just the net income portion of tax cuts: Biggest 446 businesses net an average of $149,000 a year. The other 76,000? About 500 bucks.

If we want to target tax breaks to small businesses, fine. But, we should be clear about a couple things: Even at the biggest projection of tax breaks, the vast majority of Philly businesses will not be 'saved' by an extra 100 dollars a month. And, they will not all of a sudden be able to hire a number of additional workers. What will happen is that the biggest 446 businesses will get themselves a nice chunk of change.

We will have more data soon, when the City gives us the information that they are legally obligated to give us. But for now, even with this most basic data, I think City Council and the Mayor should slow down on BPT cuts and figure out if there is a targeted way to help small businesses. Because this is not it.

We will follow up, with our new request within the next day. Again, if the city decides to cut taxes, that is a policy decision. But we should make it with reality-based decision making, not hidden numbers and empty slogans.

So a very nice gentleman from the City Solicitor's office wrote me back

A couple weeks ago, I wrote to request records that would show exactly who pays what under the Business Privilege Tax (this is why). The request made it to the right people--the Revenue Department and the City Finance Director--after some trial and error and with the help of some of you.

Last week I received an email. The City Solicitor's office is reviewing the request, and will determine what will be released.

February 13

Dear Ms. Kates,

This response is to your letter addressed to Department of Finance. You request various records relating to payments under the Business Privilege Tax.

I am writing to let you know that we have taken this matter under consideration. However, in order to adequately review and respond to your request, a legal review is necessary to determine whether and to what extent the records you are requesting are public records subject to access under the Pennsylvania Right to Know Act, 65 P.S. §§ 66.1-4.

We will keep you informed of our progress, and anticipate being able to respond to the entire request no later than 30 days from the date of this letter.

So, a couple more weeks and then the, um, real fun begins: data analysis!

Tax cuts and open government, part two: I get out my stationary and stamps

Yesterday, Dan wrote:

So, before we decide to cut business taxes or not, we should know how much every business- from big old Comcast to the smallest person just opening up shop, pays in taxes to the City each year. This may shock you, but under the previous Mayor, the Commerce Department generally refused to provide these numbers. I guess they thought it was their business only. But, with a new Mayor focused on transparency and the like, I am hoping things change.

and I got out my laptop. (And stationary, and envelopes and stamps.)

The letter was sent to the Department of Revenue, and copy given to Finance Director Rob Dubow. Notice of the request was also sent to the mayor, and Council members Frank DiCicco, Jim Kenney, Wilson Goode, and Maria Quinones Sanchez. So we'll see.

Tax Cuts, Open Government, and Reality-Based Decision Making

Dear Mayor Nutter and City Council,

We in Philadelphia are gladly watching the beginning of the Nutter administration. I, for one, am especially heartened by the sense that we are entering a period in Philadelphia where we use reality-based decision making. Think about it: Outcome-based budgeting. A 311 system and Citi-Stat. Open records and open government.

A new day, indeed.

However, this reality-based lawmaking and open government is about to get a test, and it the test comes in the form of (wait for it, wait for it, wait for it….) business tax cuts. Here is where the rubber meets the road.

As most know, the BPT is made up of two parts- receipts and profit. Councilman Goode just introduced a bill to eliminate the receipts portion of the tax. This is by far the smallest of the taxes, at just .19% 1415% (versus 6.5% for profits). The receipts part of the tax is a symbol, because people have to pay it whether they make money or not. The bill will probably pass as of today, as will a bill to significantly cut the larger tax on corporate profits. Even the most rosy scenario of tax cuts predict that at least in the short term, there will be a decrease in revenue.

Why do we cut business taxes? Most times, it is talked about as a way to grow jobs, especially in the context of small businesses. Given that general business location decisions of big corporations put emphases away from taxes and tax packages, and towards services, workforce education, etc., we can assume that tax cuts are aimed to help small businesses. And, Brett Mandel, et. al., have done an admirable job of getting small business people up in arms about the devilish BPT.

I agree that if you presented a small business with enough money to hire an additional person, to invest in new equipment, etc., then a tax cut may make sense. On the other hand, if the typical BPT payer is not getting much of a break, and the City and small businesses could desperately use a 1)more user friendly City Hall and 2) better and more services (think the surcharge that the Center City District businesses pay), then it may make sense to forget cutting business taxes, and instead invest more in our City.

So, here is where the open-records, and reality-based decision making comes into play:

Before we make a decision on whether to cut business taxes, we should know how much each business actually pays to the City each year. (As we know from the Vince Fumo property tax fiasco, how much each person pays in property taxes is a public record.) Is a small businessperson actually saving enough money to re-invest in their business, or to hire additional workers? Without having real statistics, how would we know?

So, before we decide to cut business taxes or not, we should know how much every business- from big old Comcast to the smallest person just opening up shop, pays in taxes to the City each year. This may shock you, but under the previous Mayor, the Commerce Department generally refused to provide these numbers. I guess they thought it was their business only. But, with a new Mayor focused on transparency and the like, I am hoping things change.

Until we know these numbers- and see just how much business people will actually benefit from a tax cut (as opposed to our biggest firms)- we can not use reality based decision making.

I suspect very few people- from City Council, to the new Commerce Director to Small Businesspeople themselves- actually get what these numbers are. But, before we simply start cutting taxes, shouldn’t we make sure that these basic questions are answered? If there is a real privacy issue, the actual business names themselves can be redacted. But, either way, all we need is something that should be quite simple: some sort of excel/dbf type file, with a business, and the amount of each tax that it paid per year. We can analyze it from that.

It is a new day in Philadelphia. A day for open government. And a day when we can make budgetary decisions with our eyes wide open. Let’s see those numbers before we start tax cutting.

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