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Editorial: Chicago’s looking for 50 selfless statesmen

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It is not often that bread-and-butter aldermen are called upon to behave like selfless statesmen, but here we have it.

For the sake of Chicago’s future, the 50 men and women of the City Council have no honest choice but to get behind Mayor Rahm Emanuel and back a huge property tax increase, though they understandably fear it could doom their careers.

The mayor’s proposed budget for 2016, presented to the Council on Tuesday, is a work in progress. There is room for negotiation, for improvement along the margins. But a property tax increase of $588 million over four years, as the mayor is calling for, not only is necessary — it probably won’t even be enough. Not when the city must fill an unfunded pension hole of $20 billion.

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For Emanuel, the political risks are not great. The betting is heavy that he will step down after his second term. He loves the gig, but doesn’t need it. But for many aldermen, re-election in 2019 is everything.

Here are two ways to think about that:

  • People run for alderman because they want to serve their city. This, at least, is what they tell themselves. Here’s their chance. By backing this tax hike, unpopular as it is sure to be, they will help set right the city’s finances — finally — for a generation to come. There is no other way to look at it. Anybody unwilling to take this tough vote shouldn’t be an alderman.
  • Voting for this tax hike may never come back to haunt. Chicago will benefit tremendously and quickly, beginning with an improved bond rating. Businesses initially will complain about having to pay more. but they finally will get what they always say they need most — a more stable and predictable business climate. Chicago is a city of tremendous assets, such as an excellent transportation network and a skilled work force. Resolve this all-consuming fiscal crisis, and Chicago will thrive.

Critics of the mayor’s property tax hike have proposed various alternative sources of new revenue, which is nice, but they miss the point. Chicago’s fiscal problems will not be solved entirely by the tax hike. Even more revenue will be necessary down the road to meet future payments to the municipal workers and laborers pension funds. And let’s not even talk about teacher pensions. Chicago will require every dollar of Emanuel’s proposed property tax increase — as well as serious money from other less lucrative sources, including a casino.

When we asked Emanuel about a proposal from the Council’s Progressive Caucus to squeeze voluntary contributions out of nonprofits in town that don’t pay property taxes, such as universities, he argued that they contribute to the city in many other ways. But he didn’t rule the idea out.

When all is said and done, what matters most here is a willingness to take a tough vote.

“If we are willing to finally confront our fiscal challenges, I believe that we will be remembered as the men and women who pulled Chicago back from the financial brink and made Chicago stronger,” Emanuel said in his speech to the City Council.

Sometimes you play to the voters. Sometimes, even in Chicago, you play for history.

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