Dead set against higher taxes and layoffs, aldermen? Then come up with a better idea

Many of the alternatives we’ve heard to Mayor Lightfoot’s painful budget proposals deserve an honest debate, but they’re not likely to become reality soon.

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Mayor Lori Lightfoot delivers her 2021 budget address at a virtual meeting of the Chicago City Council on Oct. 21.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Chicago aldermen are feeling whiny and we get it. We’re feeling whiny, too.

They don’t like the painful measures Mayor Lori Lightfoot is pushing to balance the city’s budget for next year, and we don’t either. Who would?

Nobody wants higher property taxes. Nobody is thrilled by the thought of the city refinancing old debt, pushing the burden onto future generations. Nobody wants to see anybody get laid off in hard times.

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But here’s the thing. It’s not enough, aldermen, to say what you are against. It’s not enough to tell the mayor what not to do. If you oppose higher taxes or borrowing or layoffs, it’s on you to come up with better realistic solutions.

Or the city’s financial collapse will be on you.

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Painful action better than no action

Chicago faces a $1.2 billion budget shortfall next year, in large part because of the devastating economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Tax revenues from hotels, conventions, tourism, stores and restaurants have plummeted.

But the mayor — and you, the aldermen — must find a way to close that budget gap or watch the city’s finances spin out of control. Watch as the ratings agencies downgrade Chicago’s credit. Watch as businesses leave. As “For Sale” signs pop up on lawns.

As a state, we have been through this before, and the lesson is that doing the stuff nobody likes sure beats utter denial. For 793 days during the tenure of the intransigent Gov. Bruce Rauner, Illinois stumbled along with no budget at all, even as the state’s debts grew, its credit rating fell and the quality of its services suffered.

So it is not as if Chicago hasn’t been warned.

Revenue ideas in the hopper

To their credit, more than a few alderman already have begun to offer alternatives to the mayor’s proposals for generating more revenue, though their ideas are not necessarily practical — to our thinking — or sufficiently big.

Fourth Ward Ald. Sophia King, for one, was among the first members of the Council to argue that the city should raid its $900 million rainy day fund for more than the $30 million the mayor has proposed. That’s a reasonable suggestion, though the bond rating agencies would be displeased — and who’s to say how long the current economic downturn will last?

We respect that the City Council’s 18-member Progressive Caucus, which includes King, has wasted no time in proposing other alternatives to raising property taxes or fees, which they argue would hurt Chicagoans of more modest means first.

In an op-ed in the Sun-Times last week, the Progressive Caucus called for raising more revenue by levying a progressive real estate transfer tax, demanding that major tax-exempt universities and hospitals make payments to the city in lieu of taxes, and pulling funds from “bloated” TIF districts.

The Progressive Caucus also called for changes in state law to “modernize” the sales tax system to generate more revenue, and for the state to give Chicago a larger share of state income tax revenue.

These are ideas worth debating. But none are likely to become a reality in time for this budget cycle.

Shudders all around

The moment Lightfoot presented her 2021 budget last week, the response of most aldermen — it’s only natural — was to shudder. When interviewed by Sun-Times City Hall reporter Fran Spielman, they didn’t necessarily flatly reject the mayor’s plan, but they definitely made a point of signaling to their constituents — also only natural — that they were not pleased.

Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) lamented that she had made a “pledge” to her constituents “not to vote to for property tax increases.” Ald. Anthony Beale (9th) warned that refinancing the city’s debt would be “mortgaging the city’s future.”

Ald. Anthony Napolitano (41st) called the proposed property tax hike a “hard sell.” He said another provision in the mayor’s budget, to eliminate 618 currently unfilled Police Department positions, would be “a punch in belly” to his Northwest Side ward, home to many police officers.

On Wednesday, Napolitano suggested to us that the city should consider expanding video gaming into bars and restaurants, imposing a modest “LaSalle Street tax” on financial trading and — here’s an interesting idea — selling the naming rights to vehicle stickers. Imagine a sticker on your windshield that advertised “Boeing” or “Pepsi” or some such thing.

“We can find a better way to raise $94 million,” Napolitano told us, referring to Lightfoot’s proposed property tax increase. “We’re losing residents. We’re pushing people out with taxes.”

An honest conversation

What matters right now is that every alderman who dreads taking a vote on higher property taxes, which is to say every alderman, step up and propose realistic alternatives. We’d like to hear so much more.

We look forward to a healthy debate. We look forward, as well, to calling out any alderman who attacks the mayor’s plan to score easy political points but fails to propose honest alternatives.

That $1.2 billion budget gap won’t magically close itself.

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