Pension fix? We’ll get back to you later

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Before the end of this year, the mayor of Chicago — whoever that is — must make a very important decision about how to find more money to pay for city employee pensions.

But the five mayoral candidates who debated Friday before the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board either don’t have a solid plan or aren’t ready to share it.

You might think there would be no avoiding the issue that is sure to dominate the next mayor’s agenda.

Unfortunately, a lack of specifics from Mayor Rahm Emanuel has made it easier for the others to dodge as well.

The mayor couldn’t be budged from what I’ll call his “Trust Me” speech in which he recounts his track record on financial matters, which includes more responsible annual budgeting than his predecessors plus legislative deals that reduce pension benefits and increase pension contributions for some city employees and retirees.

It’s part of the shared sacrifice message Emanuel has been using for some time now, and although I believe the mayor’s approach to pensions has been sound, it’s time for him to level with the taxpaying public about their end of the sacrifice. It’s not enough to say: look at what I’ve done in the past.

With a great deal of prodding, Emanuel acknowledged he’s not ruling out a property tax increase to help bring down the city’s huge pension liability.

Ald. Robert Fioretti jumped on this to say that Emanuel is making plans for “massive” property tax increase.

I don’t know if that’s true or whether the mayor is counting on Gov. Bruce Rauner’s proposed sales tax expansion on services to fill some of his needs. Emanuel, who ran for mayor in 2011 on a plan to tax what he called luxury services, still supports expanding the sales tax base.

Fioretti, who flatly rules out a property tax increase, is the only candidate ready to put  alternative revenue sources on the table. His calls for a commuter tax and/or a financial transactions tax on Chicago’s trading exchanges undoubtedly have some populist appeal.

Being a commuter, I admit a certain bias, but a commuter tax has never struck me as a great way to attract business to the city, and the La Salle Street tax is extremely problematic.

At least Fioretti is willing to stick his neck out for something. Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia couldn’t have been more vague about what he has in mind, arguing there are still too many unknowns about the scope of the problem until the Illinois Supreme Court has ruled on pension reform legislation.

Garcia also said he opposes reducing pension benefits to current retirees, which was a key part of Emanuel’s pension legislation. That means Garcia would need to find even more revenue.

Chicago voters have just three more weeks to demand real answers.

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