Mayoral candidate Brandon Johnson unveils tax-the-rich plan to bankroll social services

“Our city faces a housing crisis and raising property taxes would only exacerbate that crisis, leading to a death spiral for our city,” Johnson’s financial plan states.

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Brandon Johnson kicked off his campaign for mayor of Chicago on Thursday morning, Oct. 27, 2022 in Seward Park, 375 W. Elm St.

Brandon Johnson, shown as he kicked off his mayoral campaign in October in Seward Park.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Mayoral challenger Brandon Johnson on Monday unveiled a tax-the-rich plan to bankroll $1 billion in new spending on everything from public safety, public schools and public transportation to new housing, health care and job creation.

United Working Families, a progressive group affiliated with the Chicago Teachers Union that has joined the CTU in endorsing Johnson, has long championed a $4.5 billion wish list of revenue-generating ideas it says would level the playing field between Chicago’s haves and have-nots.

That group’s plan includes a 3.5% city income tax on Chicagoans and suburbanites earning more than $100,000 a year; a financial transaction tax; a 66% increase in the city’s hotel tax, which is already the highest in the country; a revived employee head tax; and raising the real estate transfer tax on high-end home sales.

Johnson’s plan embraces some of those ideas and adds a few of his own in order to freeze property taxes on Chicago homeowners and cancel the automatic escalator imposed by Mayor Lori Lightfoot. The escalator locks in annual property tax increases at the inflation rate. He does not, however, specify a rate for a city income tax.

“Our city faces a housing crisis and raising property taxes would only exacerbate that crisis, leading to a death spiral for our city,” Johnson’s financial plan states.

“As mayor, Brandon Johnson will not raise property taxes on Chicago families. Property taxes are already painfully high.”

Homeowners in predominantly Hispanic wards are struggling to hang onto their homes after enduring increases in both assessments and property tax rates, with some bills up by more than 40%.

Johnson is determined not to make the problem worse.

Instead, he wants to “make the suburbs, airlines & ultra-rich pay their fair share” to generate “$800 million in new revenue.”

“The suburban tax base utilizes Chicago’s infrastructure to earn their disproportionately higher income, yet their taxes fund already wealthy towns. A Metra “city surcharge” will raise $40 million from the suburbs,” his plan states, without saying precisely how the commuter tax would be imposed or at what level.

Johnson’s plan also includes:

• Reinstating the $4-a-month-per-employee “head tax” to generate $20 million, but confining the levy long-despised by Chicago’s business leaders to “large companies” that perform at least half their work in Chicago. The cut-off is aimed at “allowing businesses to continue to create new jobs,” his plan states.

• Raising $98 million by “making the big airlines pay for polluting the air” in Chicago neighborhoods.

• Taxing financial transactions — Johnson calls it a “Big Banks Securities and Speculation Tax” — at a rate of $1 or $2 for every “securities trading contract.” A tax of “less than 0.002 percent of a trade’s value” would generate $100 million, he said.

• Hiking a Chicago hotel tax that’s already the nation’s highest to generate $30 million more.

• Imposing “new user fees for high-end commercial districts frequented by the wealthy, suburbanites, tourists and business travelers” to generate $100 million.

• Honoring Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s broken campaign promise to raise the real estate transfer tax on high-end home sales to create a dedicated source of funding to reduce homelessness and create affordable housing. Johnson said what he calls a “Chicago Mansion Tax” would raise $100 million a year.

• Funneling $100 million per year from tax increment financing surpluses into the corporate fund that essentially serves as the city’s checking account.

• Getting serious about selling what he calls “Chicago’s world-class water” and exploring the idea of  “expanding” the city’s health care plan for public employees to “neighboring municipalities.”

• Maximizing advertising revenues from public assets and expanding so-called “Social Impact Investing programs” to attract more private sector investments in Chicagoans, thereby “lessening the burden on taxpayers.”

“The revenues and efficiencies in this plan add up to about $2 billion total to close Chicago’s current, $1 billion structural deficit and add another $1 billion in new investments from the Better Chicago Agenda,” Johnson’s plan states.

“This will allow Brandon Johnson as mayor to pay down Chicago’s debts from the past by $250 million a year while also making $250 million of new, necessary investments each year. With this approach, we can move forward a flexible, realistic, ad responsible plan to dig out of mistakes of the past while investing in Chicago’s future. Finally, Chicago will have a serious, transparent roadmap to accomplish our goals — not a series of ad hoc, one-off budgetary tricks.”

Lightfoot’s current $16.4 billion budget — which also serves as her reelection platform — includes a $242 million pension pre-payment after climbing the ramp to actuarial funding of all four city employee pension funds.

The pension pre-payment and Lightfoot’s claims to have reduced the city’s debt and eliminated Chicago’s structural deficit have triggered a series of upgrades to the city’s bond rating, which helps determine how much interest the city pays to borrow money.

Editor’s note: The headline of this story has been changed from an earlier version.

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