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