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Lightfoot facing budget dilemma on eve of Navy Pier reception for state lawmakers

The mayor will deliver her first budget address five days before the fall veto session begins. She needs to outline a plan to erase an $838 million shortfall without knowing how much help, if any, she can count on from Springfield.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot shares a laugh with Ald. Walter Burnett (27th), chairman of the City Council’s Committee on Pedestrian and Traffic Safety, during a West Side news conference on Thursday.
Fran Spielman/Chicago Sun-Times

Mayor Lori Lightfoot will deliver her first budget address — and outline the taxes she plans to raise to erase an $838 million shortfall — five days before the start of the Illinois Legislature’s fall veto session.

She needs to introduce a balanced budget without having any idea how much money, if any, she can count on from Springfield.

On Thursday, on the eve of a Navy Pier reception for state lawmakers, the mayor was asked how she plans to navigate those choppy waters.

Will she put a line-item in the budget — as Mayor Rahm Emanuel once directed his school team to do--that essentially says, here’s how much we hope to get from the Democratic-controlled Illinois General Assembly?

“It doesn’t work that way. We’re gonna have to propose a balanced budget,” the mayor said laughing.

That would appear to leave the mayor with no alternative but to cobble together a budget that includes: a hefty property tax increase; an increase in ride-hailing fees; a smaller version of Emanuel’s $10 billion pension borrowing and another round of “sales tax securitization” bonds; a tax increment financing surplus; and, perhaps, cuts that include permanently eliminating the 3,000 vacancies that existed at the time she ordered her hiring freeze.

If the Legislature authorizes a real estate transfer tax hike and applies the increase to the sale of commercial property where the big money is, Lightfoot can get rid of the property tax increase that she wants so desperately to avoid.

If she gets the casino gambling fix she seeks or some other form of pension relief — like a tax on high-end professional services — the city would be in even better shape. But the service tax doesn’t appear to have a legitimate shot until after the November 2020 election, when the graduated income tax referendum will be on the ballot.

“Obviously, I’m not gonna reveal our entire legislative strategy here. But our needs are very well known now. … We will continue to talk with them about what’s possible. We have our own ideas about what that should look like. But we have to work within the confines of the Legislature,” she said.

“On pension issues, we’ve also been reaching out to mayors in other parts of the state who are in just as dire straits as Chicago. This is not a unique, Chicago-specific challenge. It is one that is statewide. And we hope that we can create a sense of urgency in the General Assembly to make sure that some specific action is taken. That’s our plan.”

As for the Navy Pier reception, Lightfoot portrayed it as a social event—a chance to continue the political schmoozing that she started as mayor-elect.

“This is about relationship-building. For many of these legislators, I’m still a very new commodity. So, I’ve been working hard — going back into April — to make sure that I’m reaching out on both sides of the aisle,” she said.

“We have to have a Chicago agenda that is well-known by the legislators who represent the city. So, we have been engaged for quite some time. We had a similar session with legislators during the transition. I went down to Springfield. And I’m in contact with legislators — not just the leaders, but individual legislators — on a regular basis. And the feedback that we’ve gotten has been very positive.”

Illinois House Majority Leader Greg Harris (D-Chicago) said Thursday he has no idea what the mayor wants from Springfield. He only knows the broad outlines of the ideas she tossed out in her state of the city address.

“What I know is just the stuff that’s been in the newspaper and the comments she made at her speech at the library,” Harris said.

Harris was asked to rate the chances that Lightfoot will get the transfer tax, a gambling fix, a service tax or a pension consolidation.

“Veto session is a very short amount of time. Only two weeks. You can only fit so much in,” he said.

“Those things you mentioned — they’ll be a big lift. We’ll just have take a look ... and see what the specific requests are that we get.”