From turkeys and trash cans to gas cards and guaranteed income? Freebie frenzy dominates election season

Decades ago, Chicago politicians curried favor with voters by distributing Thanksgiving turkeys and Christmas hams. Garbage cans with an office-holder’s name on it were also a frequent freebie. But, the avalanche of federal stimulus funds has allowed Gov. J.B. Pritzker, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and Mayor Lori Lightfoot to up the ante and then some during their re-election campaigns.

SHARE From turkeys and trash cans to gas cards and guaranteed income? Freebie frenzy dominates election season
Mayor Lori Lightfoot hands out the first $150 gas card to William Bullion in the Northwest Side’s 39th Ward late last month.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot hands out the first $150 gas card to William Bullion in the Northwest Side’s 39th Ward late last month.

Provided

Giveaways have long been a staple of Chicago and Illinois politics. But, the stakes are rising with the inflationary times.

Decades ago, Chicago politicians curried favor with voters by distributing Thanksgiving turkeys and Christmas hams. Garbage cans with an office-holder’s name on it were also a frequent freebie.

Analysis bug

Analysis

Former Mayor Jane Byrne — who made national headlines with her brief move to Cabrini Green during a crime wave — routinely concentrated her holiday food giveaways among residents of vote-rich Chicago Housing Authority projects.

But, the avalanche of federal stimulus funds has allowed Mayor Lori Lightfoot to up the ante and then some.

She’s running for re-election armed with a seemingly bottomless gift bag of giveaways that includes everything from gas cards, Ventra cards, bicycles, locks and helmets to more than $1,000-per-household in rebates to defray the cost of security cameras, outdoor motion sensor lighting, cloud storage and GPS trackers to hunt down vehicles in the event of an auto theft or carjacking.

Mayor Jane Byrne and her husband, Jay McMullen, share breakfast at the Cabrini-Green housing project in 1981.

Mayor Jane Byrne and her husband, Jay McMullen, share breakfast at the Cabrini-Green housing project in 1981.

Kevin Horan/Chicago Sun-Times file

By far the biggest and most costly of the mayoral giveaways is a one-year, $31 million guaranteed basic income program.

Lightfoot was slow to embrace the program championed by her former City Council floor leader, Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th), himself a candidate for Congress, only to use it as a sweetener to win City Council approval of her 2022 budget.

The mayor even went so far as to tout her version of guaranteed minimum income as the largest in the nation before vanquished mayoral challenger Toni Preckwinkle trumped the mayor’s offer with $35 million Cook County version. Preckwinkle is also seeking re-election.

Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot (left) shakes hands with former mayoral candidate Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle after the April 2019 mayoral election.

Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot, left, shakes hands with former mayoral candidate Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle after the April 2019 mayoral election.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

More than 176,000 Chicago residents applied for the city pilot that will provide monthly checks of $500, no strings attached.

Only 5,000 individuals will be selected through a lottery process, meaning that a person has about a 2% chance of being selected. That’s how great the demand is at a time when city and suburban residents are being squeezed by 8.6% inflation and skyrocketing gas prices.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker even got in on the freebie frenzy by championing and signing a $46 billion pre-election budget that includes $1.8 billion in temporary tax relief.

It freezes the state gas tax that Pritzker doubled in 2019 to bankroll his $45 billion infrastructure program. The budget also suspends the 1% sales tax on groceries for a year, provides direct payments to residents who file their state income taxes and gives beleaguered Illinois homeowners property tax rebates of up to $300.

Over strenuous objections from Republicans, the Pritzker budget also expands a state tax credit for low- and moderate-income employees.

State Senate Republican Leader Dan McConchie, R-Hawthorne Woods, has denounced the giveaway-laden state budget as a “campaign tool” for Pritzker that shows “how desperate they are to win over” an angry and squeezed electorate.

“Nobody will be fooled by their gamesmanship,” McConchie was quoted as saying on the day Pritzker signed the budget.

‘Not likely to have a long-term benefit’

Civic Federation President Laurence Msall called the freebie frenzy a “clumsy response to the inflationary pressure” facing beleaguered Illinois consumers that is “not likely to have a long-term benefit” for recipients of the largesse.

“It would be far better for the state and the city to be working together ... to comprehensively address the core issues, which would include the benefits of credits to income tax based on income, based on peoples’ ability to pay, having a larger circuit-breaker for the state. That would require the state to fund some of these programs that are being done at the local level,” Msall said.

“While it is good that governments are seeking to be responsive to the perceived problems, the approach through gas cards and modest changes in the gas tax rate or the sales tax on food are not likely to have a long-term benefit for the citizens of Illinois.”

A voter poses with the garbage cans that she said were given to her for voting Democratic in 1983. She said her precinct captain was threatening to take them away unless she voted the way he wanted in the mayoral election.

A voter poses with the garbage cans that she said were given to her for voting Democratic in 1983. She said her precinct captain was threatening to take them away unless she voted the way he wanted in the mayoral election.

Chicago Sun-Times file photo

Lightfoot started the great Chicago giveaway after businessman and mayoral challenger Willie Wilson spent millions of his personal fortune to bankroll three wildly popular gas and food giveaways.

On Wednesday, the mayor announced that the first of 10,000, $150 gas cards had either been distributed or were awaiting pick-up at City Hall after a city lottery that included 90,000 applicants.

The first gas card went to William Bullion.

In fact, Lightfoot and Jennie Huang Bennett, the city’s chief financial officer, made a personal visit to the Northwest Side’s 39th Ward a few weeks ago to hand the first, $150 gas card to Bullion, director of a local theater company, according to a mayoral press release sent out Wednesday.

‘Just gonna give people stuff’

Ten thousand more gas cards will be doled out to qualified applicants in the coming weeks, along with 25,000 Ventra cards.

“The robust response ... demonstrates the vast need for this kind of assistance,” Lightfoot was quoted as saying in the press release.

“People are experiencing economic hardship due to skyrocketing inflation and the cost of gas, but the city is committed to providing continued financial relief to combat these challenging times.”

A campaign worker hands out fliers during Ald. Richard Mell’s annual 33rd Ward Free Senior Bingo event at Gordon Tech H.S. in 2010. Politicians regularly stopped by the event to donate money for the bingo games and ask for votes on Primary election day.

A campaign worker hands out fliers during Ald. Richard Mell’s annual 33rd Ward Free Senior Bingo event at Gordon Tech H.S. in 2010. Politicians regularly stopped by the event to donate money for the bingo games and ask for votes on Primary election day.

John J. Kim/Chicago Sun-Times file

Former Inspector General Joe Ferguson, who resigned to avoid being pushed out by Lightfoot, called the parade of freebies legal, but “unseemly.”

What bothers him most is not, what he called the “simple” giveaways, but the “more complex” freebies. That is, $500 monthly checks for one year, no questions asked.

“It is a $30 million giveaway to 5,000 people … with a set amount of money that is not sufficient to actually meet basic living needs for one year only. One year only. If you were having a guaranteed basic income program, you should do so in a way that scales up to basic need and actually provides for the long-term revenue stream,” Ferguson told the Sun-Times.

“This is a problem with a lot of what goes on. Very transactional. Not really thought out in terms of broader policy perspective and vision. And frankly, a lot of these things are a reflection of exactly that. A lack of vision and a lack of thought about what we need to do bigger to scale. But in the meantime, we’re just gonna give people stuff.”

‘What are we gonna give them next?’

Mayoral challenger Roderick Sawyer (6th) has been equally critical of Lightfoot’s seemingly endless string of pre-election freebies.

“I don’t approve of giveaways. It demeans our office. It’s a good thing for charities and philanthropists to do. But the role of government is to protect everyone. Once you start doing that, then it becomes a dependency. ... What are we gonna give them next?” he asked.

Lightfoot initially contemplated rolling back her 3-cents-a-gallon gas tax increase until Dec. 31 to provide relief for motorists squeezed by skyrocketing gas prices.

She switched to gas cards and Ventra cards after union leaders opposed the gas tax freeze for fear it would deprive the city of the funding it needs to bankroll job-creating capital projects. The same argument has been made at the state level.

Although their constituents love freebies, City Council members’ pushback to the gas and mass transit card giveaways was fierce.

Lightfoot dodged an embarrassing City Council defeat — and narrowly delivered her $12.5 million gas and mass transit giveaway — only after broadening the boundaries to include the wards of two former critics.

The vote was 26 to 23. It was the closest shave of Lightfoot’s more-than-three-year tenure.

Opposition to the plan she calls “Chicago Moves” had already forced Lightfoot to make several tweaks just to get it through committee.

Mayor Richard M. Daley announces a new Tickets for Kids program in 1995. The program offered Chicago children free tickets to sporting events shows and concerts as a reward for academic accomplishments or civic contribution,

Mayor Richard M. Daley announces a new Tickets for Kids program in 1995. The program offered Chicago children free tickets to sporting events shows and concerts as a reward for academic accomplishments or civic contribution,

Chicago Sun-Times file photo

The income ceiling for eligibility was lowered, and three-fourths of the $7.5 million in gas cards were reserved for South and West Side neighborhoods defined by the city as “high-mobility hardship community areas.” The eligibility area was further broadened Wednesday.

The rest are being distributed through citywide lotteries “in equal portions to each ward,” officials said.

The ordinance appeared destined for defeat before Lightfoot changed the boundaries of the eligibility area yet again to include the wards of Alderpersons Derrick Curtis (18th) and Debra Silverstein (50th).

“My ward was included as a high-mobility area. A lot of people are struggling right now and I wanted to help my constituents,” Silverstein wrote in a text message to the Sun-Times.

Curtis said he voted against the mayor’s plan in committee “because it wouldn’t benefit all of my ward” but, “They promised to change it. They did. So, I supported it.”

Msall said he is most concerned about the dependency that will be created by giving 5,000 families $500-a-month for one year with no associated obligations and about what will happen when the federal spigot runs dry.

“We need to make sure that we can afford these programs in a continuing way. How do you build them into your future spending when your only identified revenue is really short-term federal funds which, may or may not be available in the future?” he asked.


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