Mayor Lightfoot goes to Springfield, with Chicago’s future in the balance

Between now and next summer, the political acumen of Chicago’s new mayor will be tested. She needs allies from all quarters — the governor, the Democratic Senate and House leaders, the Republican minority leaders, Downstate mayors and — let us not forget — Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.

SHARE Mayor Lightfoot goes to Springfield, with Chicago’s future in the balance
Mayor Lori Lightfoot meets on Friday with the Sun-Times Editorial Board.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot meets on Friday with the Sun-Times Editorial Board.

Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Chicago’s financial fate now moves 218 miles down the road to Springfield.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot made it clear this week that Gov. J.B. Pritzker and the state Legislature must take action to ease Chicago’s financial burden or the consequences could be as bad for the state as for the city.

As Chicago goes, she said, so goes Illinois. The city is the economic engine of the state. For that reason alone, she said, a big assist from state government makes plenty of sense.

Editorials bug

Editorials

But if no help is forthcoming, Lightfoot also made clear, she will be forced to make “painful choices.” She almost certainly, that is to say, will raise property taxes.

Another round of property tax hikes, after multiple previous hikes by the city in recent years — plus a tax hike for the city’s schools — would be punishing for Chicago homeowners. There’s a real fear that a tipping point could be reached, with droves of fed-up homeowners just picking up and leaving.

This is Chicago’s problem, of course. But, as Lightfoot surely knows, it is also Pritzker’s problem, and not just because he’s a Chicago-loving guy.

Saving the ‘fair tax’

Pritzker dearly wants to make good on a campaign promise to create a graduated income tax in Illinois, which would help the state climb out of its own financial hole by allowing higher rates of taxation on wealthier people. The governor’s “fair tax,” which requires a constitutional amendment approved by the voters, will be on the ballot on Nov. 3, 2020.

But the amendment already is under heavy attack from anti-tax guardians of the wealthy. It will be a tough enough sell. If Chicago voters sour on the notion — disinclined to vote “yes” to anything having to do with taxes after a big property tax hike by Lightfoot — the amendment will be no sale at all.

So it boils down to this: Two Democrats elected by wide margins will need to work together. If Pritzker wants his fair tax, he may want to do all he can to help Lightfoot avoid raising property taxes. Lightfoot, in turn, could help the governor get his fair tax passed amid what’s sure to be a raucous presidential election cycle.

It’s a tall order all the way around.

What’s beyond doubt, though, is that something has to give. Chicago faces an immediate budget deficit of $832 million, according to Lightfoot’s administration, and that scary figure could soar far higher in the long run as the city struggles to meet its unfunded pension liabilities.

A speech for you

On Thursday, Lightfoot delivered a televised evening speech about the city’s finances, which we thought was pretty weak until we figured out she wasn’t talking to us.

She laid out the problem, which we already understood, and warned of the possible pain to come, which we’ve been writing about forever, and didn’t commit to a single concrete solution, which is what we were waiting to hear.

But Lightfoot wasn’t talking to municipal finance experts or civic leaders or editorial boards or other politicians. She was talking to the average Chicagoan, somebody who might have a general idea that the city’s finances spell trouble but has been too busy to pay full attention.

She was making a pitch to get everybody on board.

Looking at Lightfoot’s speech that way, it worked well enough. She campaigned on a promise to pull the whole city into the public discussion when making big decisions, and Thursday’s speech was in that spirit. Her office also is conducting a survey of Chicagoans’ views on taxes and the like, and has scheduled four town hall meetings, which she will attend.

The speech, Lightfoot told the Sun-Times Editorial Board on Friday, was a “call to arms.” It was a warning in clear and simple language that public pension systems across Illinois — not just in Chicago — are “on the cusp of insolvency” and now is “the time” to take the hard action.

There is “no more road,” the mayor said, “to kick the can down.”

Up next in Springfield

The state Legislature’s fall veto session in October is all of a week long. Lightfoot and Chicago can’t reasonably expect too much. At best, the Legislature might rework the tax terms for a proposed Chicago casino, which as things stand now would be so heavily taxed that an operator might be unable to turn a decent profit.

The Legislature also, just perhaps, could help Chicago raise new revenue by approving a graduated real estate transfer tax for Chicago, a kind of property tax aimed at wealthier people and businesses.

But the heaviest lifting on behalf of Chicago — and on behalf of dozens of other governmental units in Illinois that are struggling with unfunded pension liabilities — would be a statewide consolidation of pension systems. That’s not about to happen in the Legislature this fall — and maybe never.

Between now and next summer, the political acumen of Chicago’s new mayor will be intensely tested. She needs allies from all quarters — the governor, the Democratic Senate and House leaders, the Republican minority leaders, Downstate mayors looking for a little pension relief themselves and — let us not forget — Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.

Lightfoot and Preckwinkle have a lousy relationship, which seems to go beyond public policy differences. And it’s doing Chicago no particular good. When the time comes, Preckwinkle, chair of the Cook County Democratic Party, could help swing a few votes in Springfield.

“I am willing to lead this charge,” Lightfoot told the people of Chicago on Thursday, “but I need you to join me.”

Sounds good to us, even if for now it’s just a speech.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

The Latest
Abortion remains legal in Illinois. But, in other states, the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade has set off a frenzy of legal activity.
A relative of one of the victims called police around 2 p.m. after finding the men in an upstairs apartment in the 600 block of West Merchant Street, police said.
Gifted comic actor is miscast as a hardcore killing machine in predictable Prime Video series.
Witnesses sharply criticized the fast-growing health plans, citing audits and other reports that described plans denying access to health care.
Catholic traditionalists attached to the old rite, also known as the Tridentine Rite, are some of the biggest opponents to Francis and his belief the church should welcome everyone.