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Lightfoot’s budget shows difference between campaigning and harsh reality of governing Chicago

‘We had an $838 million deficit. We’re not gonna be able to fund everything to the full amount that we would want to,’ the mayor told the Sun-Times on Wednesday.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot and her financial team sit down for an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board, Wednesday afternoon, Oct. 23, 2019.
After delivering her first budget address to the Chicago City Council, Mayor Lori Lightfoot sits down with the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board on Wednesday.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Campaigning for mayor and the cold, hard reality of actually governing the city are two very different things.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot has always known that. But she knows it even better after unveiling her $11.75 billion city budget on Wednesday.

Her education platform reads like a page from the Chicago Teachers Union’s playbook and contract demands. Yet, striking teachers practically shut down the streets outside City Hall on Wednesday in an obvious attempt to pressure and embarrass her.

Lightfoot never mentioned that elephant in the City Council chambers during her budget address.

“Protest is a part of Chicago history. It’s a part of our democratic process. And I don’t embarrass easily,” Lightfoot told the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board, denying that her $500 million offer to the teachers sets a “floor” for potential salary increases for police and fire unions next year.

Lightfoot campaigned on a promise to reopen the city’s six mental health centers closed by former Mayor Rahm Emanuel and raise the real estate transfer tax to create a dedicated revenue source to combat homelessness and build affordable housing.

But her budget does neither of those things.

Homelessness and affordable housing get a modest $10 million. The six shuttered mental health centers will remain closed. Lightfoot would only promise “no more closures or cuts” and $9.3 million for what she called a “framework for mental health transformation.”

“We had an $838 million deficit. We’re not gonna be able to fund everything to the full amount that we would want to. To fund at the level that some are asking for would mean that we would absolutely have to raise property taxes,” Lightfoot said.

“What I’ve heard resoundingly . . . [is] people saying, ‘Please don’t raise my property taxes.’ There’s not an unlimited pot of money. And we have to be fiscally prudent. . . . We have still delivered a budget that speaks our values loud and clear.”

Even so, the property tax threat — beyond an $18 million increase to open Chicago Public Libraries on Sundays — is not entirely off the table.

It will be resurrected if the mayor’s ambitious legislative agenda falls flat during the Illinois General Assembly’s fall veto session.

Lightfoot wants the go-ahead to enact a graduated real estate transfer tax and a casino gambling fix — either through city-state ownership of a Chicago casino or a revised tax structure.

Both face a tough sell in Springfield amid a blockbuster federal corruption investigation that appears to be targeting Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan and changing the power dynamic in the state capital. The probe already has forced state Sen. Martin Sandoval to step down as chairman of the Illinois Senate’s Transportation Committee.

As a result, Lightfoot is hedging some of her bets.

She’s counting on just $50 million in revenue from the transfer tax in 2020 because she’s assuming that she will only manage to win the simple-majority vote in the General Assembly that’s needed for a July 1 effective date — not the super-majority needed to begin collecting the graduated tax on Jan. 1.

“We tried to be conservative,” the mayor said.

Not conservative enough for some aldermen.

Ald. Ray Lopez (15th), one of the mayor’s most outspoken City Council critics, said the budget makes “hundreds of millions” worth of squishy assumptions that may never pan out.

He pointed to the $200 million in savings that Lightfoot is claiming up front by refinancing $1.3 billion in city debt and the $163 million in additional revenue she’s claiming from an “emergency services reimbursement.”

Lightfoot’s finance team told the Sun-Times that money will come by increasing ambulance fees paid by private insurers and from reimbursements administered by the state for ambulance transports for low-income patients on Medicaid.

The Chicago Fire Department currently provides about 260,000 ambulance rides a year for low-income patients, but gets only about 8% to 36% of those costs reimbursed. Going forward, that amount is expected to grow to about 50%.

“I’ll believe it when I see it. Right now, a lot of this budget is in a very best-case, best wishes kind of mode. It’s not based on reality of concrete things as of right now,” Lopez said.

Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th), Lightfoot’s handpicked chairman of the City Council’s Committee on Health and Human Relations, was equally concerned about the mayor’s heavy reliance on “the unknown.”

“I want to make sure we can balance a budget on our own — not having to rely too much on Springfield because I’m not sure that’s going to come,” said Sawyer, former chairman of the Council’s Black Caucus.

AFSCME Council 31, which represents public health employees, accused the mayor of reneging on her promise to reopen the six mental health centers.

“Instead of keeping her commitment . . . the mayor appears to be heading down the same path that has left thousands of city residents and entire neighborhoods without needed services,” the union said in a statement. “This budget gives millions more to private providers with little accountability or oversight. Most of these private agencies already have wait lists and charge copays, both of which are significant barriers to access for individuals in need.”

Lightfoot did throw a bone to progressives by promising to raise Chicago’s minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2021 because “working families can’t wait until 2025” — which is when the state arrives at that wage — “to earn enough to live on.”

Still, Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th), dean of the six-member Socialist Caucus, was not appeased.

“If there are things that are onerous, I don’t think any alderman here is just gonna vote for this budget because the mayor is sneaking the $15 minimum wage in there,” Ramirez-Rosa said, accusing Lightfoot of “using it as a sweetener to try and pass her budget.”

Ramirez-Rosa is particularly miffed at Lightfoot’s opposition to including tipped workers in the minimum wage proposal.

Even without a property tax increase, Lightfoot’s budget faces heavy resistance from a City Council that’s been pushing back.

It counts on $20 million by raising the tax on downtown restaurant meals to a whopping 11%. To generate $40 million and ease crippling traffic congestion, she wants to triple the tax on Uber and Lyft passengers riding solo to and from downtown and slap a 74% increase on ride-hailing trips in the neighborhoods.

And at the risk of reopening an old wound, Lightfoot is hoping to collect $7 million by raising parking meter rates in the downtown area for the first time in five years and installing meters where there are none in the burgeoning West Loop.

Ald. Anthony Beale (9th), another mayoral critic, has warned that Lightfoot will have trouble winning 26 votes to pass her budget because of her attempts to neuter aldermen by stripping them of their unbridled control over licensing and permitting in their wards.

That’s apparently why Mayor Lightfoot is postponing — at least for now — Candidate Lightfoot’s threat to end aldermanic prerogative over zoning.

“One thing at a time. We’ve got a lot of things on our plate,” the mayor said Wednesday.

“The executive order was a big shock to the system of many of our aldermen who really enjoyed and fully exercised aldermanic prerogative. We’re building relationships with them.”