Light­foot’s bud­get show­down: Will Spring­field help or balk?

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - EDITORIALS -

Chicago Mayor Lori Light­foot is about to learn a les­son in state po­lit­i­cal dy­nam­ics. If she’s count­ing on Spring­field to help bal­ance her 2020 bud­get, she’d bet­ter have a Plan B. And prob­a­bly a Plan C.

Law­mak­ers re­turn to Spring­field Tues­day for the fi­nal three days of their fall veto ses­sion. Light­foot wants them to pass leg­is­la­tion giv­ing Chicago the abil­ity to raise taxes on real es­tate trans­fers. The tax would hit sell­ers of more ex­pen­sive prop­er­ties harder than sell­ers of less ex­pen­sive prop­er­ties, rais­ing $50 mil­lion in the first year and $100 mil­lion after that. The plan is cru­cial, Light­foot says, to balanc­ing the city’s bud­get with­out hik­ing lo­cal prop­erty taxes, an op­tion most elected of­fi­cials con­sider ra­dioac­tive. Sep­a­rately, Light­foot needs law­mak­ers to re­vamp the tax struc­ture for a pro­posed-but-not-cer­tain Chicago casino.

Both pro­pos­als are hit­ting snags in Spring­field. About 177 of them — which is how many leg­is­la­tors Illi­nois has. While her “asks” aren’t un­rea­son­able, rea­son­able­ness doesn’t al­ways fac­tor into House and Se­nate de­ci­sion­mak­ing.

Take the real es­tate trans­fer tax. Light­foot wants Spring­field’s per­mis­sion to bring the tax to the Chicago City Coun­cil for ap­proval with­out a city­wide ref­er­en­dum. Her heav­i­est lift would be with the city’s 50 al­der­men who ul­ti­mately would de­cide yes or no. She just needs to get over the state hur­dle.

Not so fast, say law­mak­ers.

Light­foot’s pro­posal, to some, is too risky to sup­port be­cause it could re­sult in a tax hike. Law­mak­ers see vi­sions of cam­paign mail­ers from op­po­nents ac­cus­ing them of rais­ing taxes on prop­erty own­ers and dam­ag­ing the al­ready-stressed real es­tate mar­ket in Chicago.

Some law­mak­ers have no in­ter­est in help­ing Chicago bal­ance its bud­get. They view the city’s fi­nan­cial wounds as self-in­flicted. Who could blame them? The wounds are.

Other law­mak­ers want strings at­tached to the money. Ad­vo­cates for the home­less, for ex­am­ple, cor­rectly point out that the mayor, on the cam­paign trail, promised to send that money their way. They’ve wran­gled sup­port from enough House Democrats to block Light­foot’s pro­posal so far.

And still other law­mak­ers are op­posed be­cause they want Light­foot to sweat it out. That’s a price she pays for tak­ing on big city prob­lems. It’s her bud­get.

Light­foot ob­vi­ously did not cre­ate Chicago’s fi­nan­cial mess. That du­bi­ous honor goes to pre­vi­ous may­ors and al­der­men who ex­ac­er­bated struc­tural deficits, ha­bit­u­ally spend­ing and bor­row­ing more than the city took in. Ev­ery year since at least 2006, the gap be­tween ex­penses and rev­enues has grown in may­oral bud­gets as pro­posed. It was about $94 mil­lion 13 years ago, ac­cord­ing to the non­par­ti­san Civic Fed­er­a­tion. This year, the gap Light­foot is try­ing to close stands at about $838 mil­lion. This is, of course, after may­ors and city coun­cils rou­tinely pro­fessed they had passed “bal­anced” bud­gets. Right.

Light­foot in­tro­duced a 2020 bud­get that counts on the real es­tate trans­fer tax changes. Her bud­get also de­pends on re­fi­nanc­ing debt and cap­tur­ing $200 mil­lion in sav­ings up­front. She and her bud­get team say they found $150 mil­lion in cost sav­ings by clos­ing va­cant po­si­tions and shav­ing ex­penses. Their bud­get blue­print does not mean­ing­fully down­size gov­ern­ment, cut po­si­tions or even in­sti­tute rel­a­tively pain­less furlough days. It’s heavy on wing­prayer, as we wrote when she in­tro­duced it.

As hear­ings on her bud­get have un­folded at City Hall, al­der­men have been ask­ing: What hap­pens if Spring­field says no to the real es­tate tax?

“This week we’re head­ing into veto ses­sion,” Ald. Emma

Mitts, 37th, said dur­ing Tues­day’s bud­get hear­ing. “And if you can tell me, if we don’t get that $50 mil­lion, where are we go­ing to look to get those dol­lars from? Do you have any idea?”

Light­foot’s bud­get gu­rus have been vague. “We con­tinue to have pro­duc­tive con­ver­sa­tions with our part­ners in Spring­field, with var­i­ous leg­isla­tive lead­ers as well as the gov­er­nor’s of­fice,” Bud­get Di­rec­tor Susie Park said. That doesn’t sound like much of a Plan B.

Weeks ago, Light­foot might not have pre­dicted that her “asks” of Spring­field would con­front so much re­sis­tance. She of­ten has said Chicago is the “eco­nomic en­gine” of the state, war­rant­ing the at­ten­tion of all leg­is­la­tors. But that’s part of the les­son in gov­ern­ing here. Lit­tle con­sid­er­a­tion gets granted in Spring­field with­out the coun­terques­tion, “What’s in it for me?”

SCOTT STANTIS

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