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Spared sacrifice: Lightfoot talks of taking political risks to save city — but so far, it’s just talk

We thought this speech was where she was going to start to explain how she plans to fill the city’s budget hole and pay for the pension obligations that hang over Chicago’s future like a thunderstorm that won’t move out over the lake. 

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Mayor Lori Lightfoot says that if she needs to sacrifice herself politically to solve Chicago’s entrenched financial problems “so be it.”

If so, she doesn’t seem to be ready to make that sacrifice quite yet.

In a curious televised “State of the City” address, Lightfoot mapped out the city’s well-known fiscal challenges while offering little in the way of specific solutions that would put her politically at risk.

Just a day after dismissing news reports about her first 100 days in office as a “Hallmark holiday” concocted by the news media, she invoked the 100-day mark to pat herself on the back extensively for what she’s accomplished so far.

That’s just politics, and in fairness, some of her achievements are worth a reminder because we move so fast to the next big thing.

But we thought this speech was where she was going to start to explain how she plans to fill the city’s budget hole and pay for the pension obligations that hang over Chicago’s future like a thunderstorm that won’t move out over the lake.

What Lightfoot did make clear is that she will be looking to the state Legislature first for help in solving Chicago’s problems, and counting on the fact that other towns across Illinois are facing similar problems to win support.

That might work better in a year when Democrats weren’t trying to calm the political waters to win voter approval in November 2020 of a referendum to change the state Constitution to allow for a graduated income tax. That makes any big ask such as authorization to raise taxes or heaven forbid, implement a new one, especially problematic in Springfield — both this year and next.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot delivers a “State of the City” address at Harold Washington Library, Thursday
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

The only real new nugget in the speech was a vague reference to some sort of congestion tax or commuter tax. She didn’t give it a name, or explain exactly what she has in mind.

What she said is: “We are exploring revenue options to address rampant congestion that solves the problems of traffic, pollution and other issues, while simultaneously bringing in a fair source of funding.”

That might mean a tax on suburban commuters or a tax on anyone who drives a car into the downtown area. Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th), her City Council floor leader, made clear afterward he’s already exploring the options.

Trying to tax suburbanites is not a big political risk for a Chicago mayor, except for how it’s received by the business community.

As previously reported, the mayor also wants a graduated real estate transfer tax that would impose a bigger burden on high-end properties, with a reduction for properties below $500,000.

She says she’s willing to spend some of that revenue on homeless services and affordable housing, but clearly not as much as advocates for those issues thought she had promised.

It was the suggestion Lightfoot is willing to sacrifice her own political future by taking the tough steps to fix the city’s problems that won Lightfoot the biggest applause from the audience of “stakeholders” who attended the speech at the Harold Washington Library auditorium—and gathered for drinks afterward upstairs in the Winter Garden.

“Yes, some of our solutions will be hard.
Yes, they may involve putting ourselves at risk. And if it means that I sacrifice myself politically, so be it in pursuit of the right thing,” Lightfoot said.

Chicago could use a politician who says that and means it. So could the whole state of Illinois.

And when she shows she’s willing to make that sacrifice, I would like to be in her corner.

But for now, it was just a speech.