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Lightfoot outlines Springfield agenda for Democratic lawmakers

The mayor has three items on her legislative agenda; one of them — reauthorizing a $5 monthly tax on phone bills — came “out of the blue,” one lawmaker said. Lightfoot said the city needs the money.

Illinois State Capitol in Springfield.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot has been discussing her legislative priorities with Chicago-area lawmakers.
Seth Perlman/Associated Press

Mayor Lori Lightfoot told Democratic lawmakers Thursday she has three items on her Springfield agenda: a Chicago casino; renewed authorization for a $5-month-tax on telephone bills; and no cuts to the city’s share of the state sales tax.

Extending the $5 tax added to monthly telephone bills — both cell phones and land lines — “came out of the blue,” according to State Rep. La Shawn Ford (D-Chicago), who ran for against Lightfoot in the first round of mayoral balloting.

Lightfoot spoke online to dozens of Democrats, telling them the phone tax is about to expire and she needs them to re-authorize it to avoid costing the city even more money at a time when revenues are plummeting because of the stay-at-home shutdown caused by the coronavirus.

During the call with dozens of Democratic lawmakers, the mayor also renewed her request for a casino gambling fix and urged them to be on the lookout for any cuts to the city’s so-called “distributive share.”

“I asked her pointedly because the landscape has changed and the state has its own problems. I said, ‘I heard you speak about the casino and the 911 fee. Do you have any other revenue enhancements that you might be looking for out of us in Springfield?’ And she said, ‘No. You’ve heard `em all,’” Ford said.

“She was very calm about the financial situation of the city. I don’t know how. But she is.”

Ford was asked to lay odds on the General Assembly approving a tax-and-fee fix that would make a Chicago casino financially viable.

“It appears that the governor wants it now. It appears that the Republican leader wants it. So it seems like it’s a done deal now. I think COVID really helped her,” Ford said.

“Not only does the city need it. The state needs it also. It really helps with capital projects in the state as well. So she’s in a good spot. Even if they don’t want to vote for it for her, it’s something that everybody needs.”

The mayor’s office had no immediate comment on Lightfoot’s legislative agenda in general or the telephone tax in particular.

Earlier this week, Lightfoot made it clear that Gov. J.B. Pritzker $6.2 billion budget gap has forced Chicago to play defense in Springfield.

“We are in regular conversation with the governor and the legislative leaders and others to understand what options they’re looking at to fill the budget hole created at the state level and, of course, advocating both for a Chicago casino and no cuts to the local government fund. That’s a great concern to us because we’ve heard a number of different things floated,” she said.

“We’re also concerned what other revenue-raising ideas that folks in Springfield are thinking about because there are many businesses that are hurting. Individuals are hurting. And so, this is all gonna be balanced against the realities on the ground in municipalities all across the state, including Chicago.”

In 2017, the phone tax was increased by state lawmakers from $3.90 a month to $5 for every cell phone and land line in Chicago.

At the time, a top mayoral aide said the increase would be used to help shore up the Laborers pension fund “well into the next decade.”

But that didn’t stop then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel from playing a bit of a shell game. He tried to say the 28 percent increase — on the heels of a 56 percent increase approved by the City Council in 2014 — was essential to maintaining Chicago’s 911 emergency system.

Never mind the roughly $27 million in annual revenue from the tax hike would be used to cover future payments to the smallest of Chicago’s four city employee pension funds.

“911 was always supposed to be independently funded and separate, and not a drain as it relates to the city and property taxpayers,” Emanuel said then.