Lightfoot hopes to waive 3-cents-a-gallon gas tax hike until Dec. 31 to ease pain at pump

If the plan is approved, the city would forfeit about $18 million by temporarily reducing the gas tax. The tax money pays for snow removal, street paving, bridge maintenance and related personnel costs.

SHARE Lightfoot hopes to waive 3-cents-a-gallon gas tax hike until Dec. 31 to ease pain at pump
Stanley Rankin, who arrived around 2 a.m. to get free gas and ended up volunteering to work for the gas giveaway, fills a driver’s tank with free gas courtesy of mayoral candidate and businessman Dr. Willie Wilson at the Mobil gas station at 1950 Green Bay Rd. in Evanston, Ill., Thursday morning, March 24, 2022. Wilson is giving away $1 million worth of free gas in 50 gas stations in Cook County.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot proposes to temporarily reduce the city’s gas tax by 3 cents a gallon to help motorists. The move could cost the city about $18 million.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file

Mayor Lori Lightfoot wants to roll back her 3-cents-a-gallon gas tax increase until Dec. 31 to provide relief for motorists squeezed by skyrocketing gas prices, even though an influential alderperson warned the temporary break would be viewed as a “political stunt.”

Ald. Michelle Harris (8th), the mayor’s City Council floor leader, acknowledged a 3-cent break is a drop in the gas tank with prices hovering around $5 a gallon.

“Every little bit helps when people are struggling. … If it’s 3 cents on a gallon, that’s 3 cents on a gallon I ain’t got to pay,” Harris said. “She’s not eliminating it altogether. She’s just saying that, while things are so horrible financially, she wants to reduce it temporarily.”

Finance Committee Chairman Scott Waguespack (32nd) added: “It is mostly helping those people that are in need of saving every penny they can during the price surge.”

The tax had been expected to be up for a vote at a Finance Committee meeting scheduled for Monday. But late Friday afternoon, that meeting was canceled and the mayor’s office issued a statement:

“It is important that the City steps up and does its part to provide relief during a time where we are seeing record-breaking gas prices. As the Mayor said yesterday, our team is currently working through plans to create a unique and impactful policy that will serve the needs of our residents with diverse transportation choices. Once that plan is finalized, it will be taken up as part of the Budget Committee.”

The city’s gas tax, currently 8 cents a gallon, generates $64.9 million a year for snow removal, street paving, bridge maintenance and related personnel costs. Forfeiting the 3-cent increase for the rest of the year would cost the city roughly $18 million.

Lightfoot’s 2021 “pandemic budget” raised the tax by 3 cents a gallon, or 60%, on Jan. 1, 2021. The increase had been authorized by the General Assembly when the state’s gas tax was doubled to bankroll Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s $45 billion infrastructure program.

More recently, Pritzker proposed a gas tax freeze.

Over the past two weeks, former mayoral challenger Willie Wilson has held two wildly popular gas giveaways, offering struggling motorists $1.2 million total in free gas at $50 a tank.

In February 2019, Wilson won 13 of 18 Black wards on the strength of his charitable giving.

In the runoff, Lightfoot won all of those wards — and swept all 50 wards citywide — after Wilson endorsed her over Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.

Wilson’s endorsement of Lightfoot sent a signal to his older, church-based constituency that, as he put it, “contracts and jobs and schools” were more important than their concerns about Lightfoot being a lesbian.

A few months after Lightfoot took office, Wilson said he had “no relationship with the mayor at all.” He accused Lightfoot of ignoring his calls and sending him text messages that said she was “too busy running the city to call me back.”

Now, he is talking about reprising his 2019 mayoral run and denying the gas giveaways are a political prelude.

Against that backdrop, Harris was asked whether the mayor’s motives for the largely symbolic tax waiver are political as Lightfoot prepares for what’s expected to be an uphill battle for a second term.

“I don’t see it as a political, ‘Hey I’m keeping up with Willie Wilson’ kind of thing. I didn’t attach the two at all. She’s just trying to do something to, temporarily, make things better for folks. ... It’s her trying to do something positive,” Harris said.

Transportation Committee Chair Howard Brookins (21st) said it will be viewed as political regardless of the mayor’s motives.

“People need significant relief. And it is not 3 cents that they’re hurting over. It’s almost a dollar more a gallon that is really hitting people in the pocketbooks,” Brookins said.

“I don’t know how we get people that type of relief that would be meaningful. But maybe just 3 cents a gallon would be symbolic and taken by some of the cynics that it is a political ploy. If it was me, I would probably not do it, to not feed into the cynicism of the public that you’re just doing something as a political stunt.”

Lightfoot has pointedly refused to criticize Wilson’s gas giveaways — even after the first one caused a traffic nightmare.

Instead, she has said she understands the “sticker shock” families are experiencing and that it’s “not just gas prices” that are skyrocketing.

“I’ve talked to residents who are saying, ‘I can’t afford to fill up my tank. I’m riding on a quarter of a tank. And then, maybe I’ll put a couple more dollars in. That’s not the way people should have to live,” the mayor said Thursday.

“We’ve got to figure out a way to do our part to really provide some relief.”

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