EDITORIAL: A tax on commuters? Here’s what Chicago mayoral candidates say
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One of the 21 candidates for mayor, Bill Daley, opened the door a few days ago to a commuter tax to help pay down Chicago’s crazy high debt.
Daley did not call for a commuter tax, or any other specific tax or fee, but he said a commuter tax must be “on the table” to avoid a worse fate — higher property taxes.
This editorial page has long opposed a commuter tax, which is a tax paid by people — or their employers — who work in the city but live in the burbs. A commuter tax, we believe, would simply discourage bigger businesses, which draw employees from the entire region, from not choosing a Chicago address, and many suburbs might retaliate in kind.
If Chicago were to tax suburbanites who work in the city, why wouldn’t suburbs tax Chicagoans who work in their towns?
That said, we appreciate Daley’s larger argument. Chicago must find a way to pay off, or otherwise reduce, $42 billion in unfunded pension liabilities. The notion that everything should be “on the table” is hard to argue with, and revenue from a commuter tax — unlike revenue from a hypothetical casino or recreational marijuana — is something the city might be able to pull in pretty quickly.
What we also know, for sure, is that this mayoral race is short and crowded. Expanded early voting begins in just six weeks, on Feb. 11, and Election Day is Feb. 26. We can’t wait until the field of candidates thins out, though it will, before digging into where the candidates stand on the biggest challenges facing Chicago.
So on Thursday, by email, we asked 18 of the candidates what their position is on a commuter tax.
Of the 14 candidates who replied (and we’ll just have to assume the others had nothing useful to say) only one, Robert “Bob” Fioretti, said he enthusiastically supports a commuter tax — a “very small” one.
“It’s a matter of being equitable,” Fioretti wrote. “If you are in the city working and depending on city services such as first responders, safe streets and quality infrastructure, whether your home address is in Chicago or the Chicagoland area, everyone should contribute.”
Among the other candidates who replied, seven emphatically oppose such a tax. They are Amara Enyia, La Shawn Ford, Paul Vallas, Lori Lightfoot, Toni Preckwinkle, Ja’Mal Green and Willie Wilson. A seventh candidate, Gery Chico, said he has “serious concerns” about the tax.
Enyia argued that many Chicago residents, especially those with lower incomes, commute to work in the suburbs because they can’t find jobs in the city. A Chicago commuter tax, she wrote, would open the door for suburbs to respond with their own commuter tax, and this would disproportionately hurt “those who have been harmed by the city’s failure to create a vibrant economy for all its residents.” A commuter tax, she wrote, also wrongly implies that suburban commuters “don’t contribute to our economy.”
Ford, echoing the general sentiment of Enyia’s reply, said a commuter tax would further Chicago’s “reputation” for “taxing working families” and hurt local retailers who rely on business from commuters.
Vallas pointed out that City Hall’s inspector general in 2010 warned that a commuter tax put in place in Philadelphia resulted in job losses in that city. Vallas quotes the inspector general’s warning that Philadelphia and two other cities that have commuter taxes — Cleveland and Detroit — “are generally considered economically stagnant and have lost a substantial percentage of their populations since 1950.”
Chico, echoing our own concerns, said a commuter tax would only “open a commuter war with the suburbs.”
And Preckwinkle, also said it’s “not good public policy.” Instead, she wrote, the city should work with Springfield to bring to town a casino, tax-increment financing reform, and “an appropriate local share of tax revenues” from the legalization of marijuana — “should the state choose that path.”
As for Lightfoot? All she wrote was, “I do not support this tax.”
Lightfoot is considered a top-tier candidate in this race. We wish she had said more.
Two other candidates, Jerry Joyce and Dorothy Brown, staked out middle grounds.
Joyce, like Daley, said a commuter tax should be “on the table” as part of a “comprehensive package” to increase city revenue and cut costs. While the city “cannot tax its way out” of its problems, he wrote, it needs “breathing room” to “govern and grow” its way out.
Brown said she would “consider” a commuter tax, but she jumped quickly to her preferred solution — a city-sponsored lottery.
That idea — a city lottery — is one that deserves its own day in court. Perhaps we’ll explore it in an editorial at greater length later. But here’s our initial thought: Lotteries, especially at the municipal level, are a miserably regressive tax on the poor.
And then there was Susana Mendoza. Asked to share her views on a commuter tax, she gave us 37 words of dodgeball:
“Absent a thoughtful, robust conversation with communities throughout Chicago about our priorities moving forward and resources available to address them, we should avoid knee-jerk proposals that are void of real policy with real revenue and real benefits.”
Give us a break. Chicago’s been having this “robust conversation” forever. There’s nothing “knee-jerk” about candidates taking a stand now on specific proposals, such as a commuter tax. Better now than after the election.
As for Garry McCarthy, the former Chicago Police superintendent, his folks told us he needed more time to fill out the “questionnaire.” But it wasn’t a questionnaire. It was a single question.
We urge Chicago voters to visit the campaign websites of all the candidates who have them — not all do— to read more about where they stand on this issue and others. We could only touch on their views here.
You owe it to your city, and to your property tax bill, to bone up now.
Bill Daley: daleyformayor.com
Paul Vallas: vallasforallchicago.com
Gery Chico: chicoformayor.com
Amara Enyia: amaraenyia.com
Robert “Bob” Fioretti: bobforchicago.com
La Shawn Ford: fordforchicago.com
Willie Wilson: williewilsonformayor.com
Ja’Mal Green: greenforchicago.com
Dorothy Brown: dorothyformayor.com/2019
Susana Mendoza: susanamendoza.com
Jerry Joyce: jerryjoyce2019.com
Lori Lightfoot: lightfootforchicago.com
Toni Preckwinkle: toniforchicago.com
Garry McCarthy: garryformayor.com
Neal Sales-Griffin: nealformayor.com
John Kenneth Kozlar: johnkozlar.com
Roger L. Washington: www.washingtonformayor.com
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