Johnson won’t identify ‘plan B’ for revenue if City Council, legislature resist tax hikes

‘I need industry to help,’ find revenue other than property taxes, mayoral candidate Brandon Johnson tells Crain’s Chicago Business editorial board members.

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Chicago mayoral candidate Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson answers a question during a mayoral runoff debate at WGN Studios on Tuesday, March 22, 2023.

Chicago mayoral candidate Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson answers a question during a mayoral runoff debate at WGN Studios Tuesday.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

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Mayoral challenger Brandon Johnson acknowledged Wednesday he needs the City Council and the Illinois General Assembly to enact major portions of his $800 million tax plan, but refused to identify a “plan B” if either body turns thumbs-down.

Johnson’s plan to help bankroll an array of new social programs is the cornerstone of his anti-violence strategy.

It initially included a “Metra city surcharge” to raise $40 million “from the suburbs.” It still includes taxes on high-end home sales and financial transactions; a revived employee head tax; increased taxes on jet fuel and hotel rooms; and “new user fees for high-end commercial districts frequented by the wealthy, suburbanites, tourists and business travelers.”

Under questioning by the editorial board at Crain’s Chicago Business, Johnson acknowledged a City Council determined to declare its independence from the mayor might resist his tax plan.

The financial transaction tax needs approval from the General Assembly and Congress. Even then, the exchanges could leave the city.

“Of course, we need the support of Springfield and the City Council. ... Yes, there’ll be some push and pull on this,” Johnson said.

“That’s why I’m best suited for this position. … I am collaborative. I have relationships in Springfield. My opponent has to figure out how he’s going to convince Democrats to work with him.”

He noted he “used to work” for Illinois Senate President Don Harmon and that Johnson’s three kids “grew up together” with Speaker Chris Welch’s children.

Johnson contrasted his relationship-building approach to Paul Vallas, whose Republican supporters condemned Gov. J.B. Pritzker for his stay-at-home orders during the pandemic.

“You certainly can’t expect the governor to respond to someone who calls him a dictator,” he said.

Crain’s reporters and board members pressed the Cook County commissioner and Chicago Teachers Union organizer to identify a “plan B” for getting the revenue needed to bankroll the “investments in people” he is determined to make.

Johnson has pledged to hold the line on property taxes and blamed Vallas’ skipped pension payments as Chicago Public Schools CEO during the 1990s for a $2.5 billion avalanche of property tax increases decades later. But, the board asked, won’t Johnson need to include a property tax increase as part of his plan B, if only to keep pace with inflation?

“I need industry to help come up with plans B, C and D, just like working people had to come up with plan B, C and D, even though industry never went to Plan B, C or D. They only went with plan A [raising property taxes]. ... That’s the problem that we’re gonna fix,” Johnson said.

Johnson was asked whether he was prepared to sacrifice portions of his “invest in people” agenda if the only way to pay for it is to raise property taxes.

The candidate refused to be backed into a corner.

“You have a population decline on the West and South Sides of Chicago because it’s less safe and the property tax burden has crushed the working class,” Johnson said.

“You’re asking us to give up on working people. That’s what you’re asking us to do. And I’m not gonna give up on working people.”

Chicago’s leading business groups have endorsed Vallas over Johnson, desperate to stop tax increases and fearful of police defunding,

Asked what the “business community doesn’t get” about his candidacy, Johnson said he is someone who can “bring people together,” including CEOs.

“There’s no reason to be afraid of a middle-school teacher. I taught seventh and eighth graders. I’m one of the greatest human beings on the earth for just teaching middle-school students,” he said.

Johnson stood his ground, even though business leaders have condemned the head tax as a “job killer.”

“No one who does business in Chicago or any of its residents want to race to the bottom,” he said. “We’re Chicago. We’re never gonna be Texas or Florida. We’re not. This is Chicago, y’all.”

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