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Homeless tax proposal caught in Ed Burke’s web

Ed Burke

Ald. Ed Burke (14th) speaks during a Chicago City Council meeting. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file photo

An ambitious proposal to ask Chicago voters to approve a tax increase on the sale of high-end real estate to fight homelessness has hit a snag before it even gets started.

The snag is Ald. Edward M. Burke.

The veteran 14th Ward alderman, City Council Finance chairman and real estate tax lawyer has not publicly taken a position on the proposal, which will be formally introduced at Wednesday’s City Council meeting.

But without Burke’s cooperation, the proposal could be headed for a quick burial.

The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless and other groups operating as the Bring Chicago Home campaign revealed plans last week to seek a 160 percent increase in the real estate transfer tax on properties valued at more than $1 million to pay for housing programs.

Under state law, any increase in the transfer tax must be approved by referendum.

The problem arises from the tight procedural timeline involved in putting such a question before Chicago voters for the Feb. 26 city election.

To hold a referendum in February, supporters of the measure first need the City Council to vote by Dec. 9 to put it on the ballot.

And before the City Council can vote on the proposal, a public hearing must be held.

Before a public hearing can be held, the city must give 10 days public notice.

When you back that out on a calendar, supporters say that means they must hold the public hearing as part of an already scheduled Finance Committee meeting on Nov. 13, which would require publishing a legal notice in the newspaper by this Saturday, Nov. 3.

That would allow the measure to be approved by the full City Council Nov. 14, the last scheduled Council meeting before the deadline for submitting referendums.

“Time is of the essence,” said Ald. Proco Joe Moreno (1st), one of the sponsors.

And that’s where Burke comes in.

To date, Burke has given no indication he intends to put the homeless tax referendum on his committee agenda for that date.

“After countless phone calls, emails, and requests to meet with him and his staff over the last three weeks, and given the fact that we are now two days from a deadline that he must act on to keep this moving, I can only conclude that he has decided to put the brakes on our effort,” said Julie Dworkin, policy director for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.

Seems like a logical conclusion.

To circumvent the problem, the city Law Department went ahead Tuesday and authorized publication of a legal notice scheduling a public hearing for Nov. 13 without specifying which committee will host the hearing.

Moreno said proponents may try to send the measure to the Housing Committee, where the chairman, Ald. Joe Moore (49th), is a supporter, to avoid the Finance Committee.

But that still won’t solve the problem if Burke objects and throws the proposal into procedural limbo.

Burke did not respond to requests Tuesday for an interview.

The alderman is expected to face a serious re-election challenge next year from a progressive Hispanic candidate in a ward now dominated by Hispanic voters. Supporters of the homeless tax proposal say their polling indicates the idea is especially popular in the Latino community.

It’s not known if Burke is blocking the proposal entirely on his own or if he’s partly doing the bidding of other aldermen who might not want to vote on a tax hike proposal before the election. History suggests that if Burke wanted the item on his agenda, it would be there.

This is just one of the many small ways in which Burke uses his role as Finance chairman to exert influence.

Some 32 aldermen have agreed to sponsor the homeless tax proposal, including three who also have suggested using a transfer tax increase to pay for replacing lead water pipes. It probably can’t pay for both.

Bring Chicago Home had originally intended to seek a referendum in 2020, but moved up its plans when Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced he would not run for re-election. Emanuel also has taken no position on the homeless tax proposal.