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Emanuel vows to raise property taxes for teacher pensions, even before state help

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel at a conference in Washington, D.C., last month | Getty Images

Tucked away in Chicago Public Schools CEO Forrest Claypool’s response to the latest setback in teacher contracts talks was a ticking time bomb for Chicago taxpayers.

Under the title “Background,” Claypool’s emailed statement disclosed that the tentative agreement unanimously rejected by the Chicago Teachers Union’s 40-member bargaining committee included a CPS promise to raise “at least $200 million in revenue.”

“The board committed to restoring a dedicated 0.26 property tax levy for teachers’ pensions,” the CPS statement said.

Under the bold-faced title, “Pensions,” the CPS statement said, “The board made the same offer on pensions that the city made to the Police and Fire Departments.”

Five months ago, Emanuel offered to raise property taxes by $170 million for teacher pensions, but only if it was part of an “all-in” bargain where teachers absorb their entire, 9 percent pension payment and the state reimburses CPS for “normal” pension costs.

“I want Springfield . . . to get off their duff, start providing the political leadership to make decisions to right the decades worth of political wrongs that have existed over the years that got all of us to this point,” the mayor said on that day.

At the time, Emanuel gave Springfield a choice. Either create one “uniform pension system” for all teachers across the state or require teachers to take the equivalent of a 7 percent pay cut while the General Assembly “re-writes” the school funding formula in a way that “recognizes the special burden” born by districts with large percentages of students who live in poverty, don’t speak English and have special needs.

Either way, the mayor acknowledged that the City Council would be required to reinstate the property tax increase for teacher pensions eliminated in 1995.

“I don’t easily go to taxpayers. But part of the solution is you’re willing to give up things that you don’t support in an effort to get other things that you think are essential to the solution,” the mayor said.

Now, Emanuel is dramatically altering his earlier promise in hopes of averting another teachers strike.

He’s promising to forge ahead with the school property tax increase even before Springfield does its part.

And he’s vowing to deliver the 26 votes needed for City Council approval of that increase, even though aldermen voted four months ago to raise property taxes by $588 million for police and fire pensions and school construction.

“Absolutely not. Our residents have had enough. This is something that’s pretty shocking,” said rookie Ald. Millie Santiago (31st).

Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) said he’s “open to considering” another property tax increase for CPS. But he’s “not willing to wave the white flag and say we’re never going to get assistance” from Springfield.

Ald. Proco Joe Moreno (1st) added, “In this atmosphere, it’s going to be very difficult because we just did a property tax increase. To justify that and see the support out there for an additional property tax increase — I don’t think it’s impossible but it’s going to be very difficult.”

The only alderman willing to sign on the dotted line was Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd), who’s normally Emanuel’s harshest City Council critic.

“If it would save CPS from the lack of leadership and revenue that we’ve needed to see over the last few years, then we’d have to definitely look at supporting that,” Waguespack said.

A top mayoral aide said Tuesday that a City Council vote may not be required after all. It all depends on how state legislation reinstating the teacher pension levy is worded.

If the language is the same as it was before the teacher pension levy was abolished in 1995, the City Council would be off the hook. The appointed Chicago Board of Education could wear the jacket.

If Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, who has crusaded for property tax caps, refuses to sign legislation reinstating the teacher pension levy without a vote by the elected representatives of Chicago taxpayers, then the City Council would be required to walk the political plank again.

As for Emanuel’s promise to forge ahead with the school property tax increase even before the state holds up its end of the so-called “grand bargain,” City Hall pointed to the commitment made by Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago) to revise the state school aid formula in a way that delivers $200 million in “pension parity” to Chicago Public Schools. In his State of the State address, Rauner promised to work with Cullerton.

“The state is working on it. The governor is working on it. The speaker is not opposed. The pieces don’t line up in order the way you want them to. But it’s part of an agreement being negotiated with the teachers,” the Emanuel aide said.