If you were going to draw up a list of what Mayor Rahm Emanuel has done right and wrong over the past four years, his overall handling of city finances would have to go in the plus column.
There are many legitimate ways for mayoral challenger Jesus “Chuy” Garcia to find fault with Emanuel, but he’s barking up the wrong tree with this recent line of attack that last week’s bond rating downgrade is a commentary on the mayor’s fiscal stewardship.
Although Emanuel’s approach to city finances has been neither as brave or brilliant as he might have you believe, there’s no denying he’s been a major upgrade on his predecessor, Mayor Richard M. Daley.
Setting aside for now the fact that Emanuel helped elect Daley in the first place and remains his ally to this day, Emanuel on almost every front has tried to dig the city out of the financial hole that Daley dug with his robbing-Peter-to-pay-Paul gimmicks.
The ratings agencies certainly know that, even though they have downgraded the city bond rating under Emanuel for the obvious reason: He has yet to subdue his greatest inherited challenge — how to pay for the pensions that city workers were promised in years past.
Even on that score, Emanuel has done as much as anybody in the state to confront the problem directly. It’s a problem he does not completely control because any solution must go through the state Legislature and the governor, which is probably for the best given his get-out-of-my-way tendencies.
But Emanuel’s balanced approach of tying increased revenues to pension “reform” — in the form of benefit cuts and increased employee contributions — still makes more sense to me than anything else I’ve heard.
I realize many city employees and retirees don’t think the benefit cuts are fair, and I’m not saying they are, but I don’t think many people will believe the tax increases that eventually result from this are fair either.
A more immediate question is whether the cuts will be found legal under the Illinois Constitution, and all I can say is things could get ugly in a hurry if they aren’t.
Please don’t mistake me for somebody who subscribes to the theory advanced by the Emanuel campaign — and Republican U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk — that the mayor is the only person capable of handling these difficult financial problems. That’s insulting.
With the help of strong advisers and his own good intentions, Garcia could negotiate his way through this same thicket. But there’s no time like the present for Garcia to start outlining how he would do so.
“Outlining” is the operative word.
It’s not as if Emanuel provided a lot of specifics when he first started talking pensions either. And even now, he won’t say how he plans to come up with the extra money he promised to put into the pension funds for municipal employees and laborers — which you’ll recall he originally proposed financing with a whopping $250 million property tax increase.
I see that everyone is now demanding Garcia explain how he will fund his promise of 1,000 additional police officers, which is fine, except they seem to be forgetting Emanuel made the same vow four years ago and then moved the goal line closer to say he meant more officers “on the street.”
Beyond the pension issue, though, Emanuel has cut way back on the city’s foolish reliance under Daley of borrowing to pay for operating costs. Neither has he continued Daley’s practice of selling city assets to pay for current operating expenses.
And Emanuel has tried some innovative cost-saving solutions such as the grid system for garbage pickup.
The city is actually even socking a little money away in its Rainy Day Fund again.
Emanuel also has surrounded himself with respected financial people and appears to listen to them a little better than he does others.
On Wednesday, Emanuel held a press conference at a Chicago firehouse to talk about state budget cuts, treating it as official city business instead of a campaign event.
But make no mistake: The true purpose of the mayor’s appearance was to make the case that he’s been a responsible manager of city finances and to distance himself from the cost-cutting efforts of his friend, Gov. Bruce Rauner.
Strangely enough, Emanuel couldn’t seem to bring himself to mention Rauner by name, much as he has trouble saying Daley’s name when he talks about all the problems he inherited.
Garcia seized upon the mayor’s criticism of “the governor’s” budget to remind voters of Emanuel’s chummy relationship with the Republican governor, who proposes to deal a crippling blow to city finances.
Now that’s a tree worth more barking.
It’s not too late to win your free meal at Manny’s in the “Sit Down with Mark Brown” contest. Each correct answer is another chance to win. (And by the way, it wasn’t me who screwed up the answer in Wednesday’s paper.)