Recall the tale-of-two-cities runoff election that saw a humbled Mayor Rahm Emanuel don a sweater and confess that, yes, he’s prickly, but he can get things done.
Emanuel repeatedly hit opponent Jesus “Chuy” Garcia as weak on finances: A Mayor Garcia would mean bankruptcy. It would mean huge tax hikes. The city needed a real leader like Emanuel to steer Chicago back on a path to fiscal stability.
So here we are again with a Mayor Emanuel and a probable massive tax hike. The city’s bond ratings are at junk level. Emanuel has relationships with the governor and the powerful speaker of the House but has been unable to leverage either friendship to get what he needs for the city.
Last week, our City Hall reporter Fran Spielman broke the news that Emanuel was proposing to hit homeowners with the largest property-tax increase in years — $500 million. That’s after Springfield, facing its own issues, refused to bail him out. Post-Emanuel’s reelection, the city and Chicago schools underwent additional bond-rating downgrades. A garbage fee is now on the table.
You know who’s feeling vindicated right now?
“They vindicated my positions,” Garcia told the Chicago Sun-Times.
He pointed out what came after Emanuel’s reelection. The revelation — one week later — that CPS was in the midst of a federal investigation involving the $20.5 million SUPES no-bid contract. Subsequent bond-rating downgrades. Hunger strikes to avoid a Dyett school closing.
Emanuel shut down controversial tax-increment financing districts that Garcia had railed against in his campaign.
Garcia said the fact that Emanuel was in the midst of a budget listening tour when his property-tax proposal was leaked is a sign that the mayor is employing the same old tactics even though he promised to change. And to listen.
Because of all those things, Garcia predicts a tough sell for Emanuel’s budget plan.
“I think it’s a really difficult decision,” Garcia said. “Some of his allies ran on no-new-tax pledges or are reticent to going down that road. If there had been more dialogue and engagement of Chicagoans in neighborhoods throughout the city, there might be more open-mindedness on the part of city residents.”
If Emanuel wasn’t straight with voters when he ran for reelection, there’s no question now what Chicago faces: a daunting $30 billion pension crisis and a junk city bond rating, making borrowing more costly. The city needs at least $754 million in new money to balance the 2016 budget and shore up police and fire pensions.
The city’s dire finances and the tough consequences shouldn’t come as a surprise. But admitting a tax increase is needed in the midst of a campaign is akin to political suicide.
Just ask Pat Quinn — the former governor.
Quinn told lawmakers they would have to make a temporary income-tax increase permanent to avoid a fiscal freefall in 2015. The higher income tax was part of Quinn’s proposed budget, which failed.
Bruce Rauner smacked around Quinn for putting the tax on the table, ridiculing him as “Quinnocchio.” The Democratic-controlled Legislature refused to extend the temporary tax — or come up with a new revenue stream before Rauner took office or after.
Now, the state is entering its third month with no budget — an impasse that has only underscored Illinois’ revenue problems and put some of the state’s most vulnerable at risk.
Neither Emanuel nor Springfield politicians has a perfect approach.
But at some point, elected officials must fall on their swords and risk political suicide to bring the constituents they represent salvation.
Follow Natasha Korecki on Twitter: @natashakorecki