‘Bittersweet’ Chicago Budget Approval Offers A Hopeful Sign For Future City Budgets

Niketa Brar of CUE at a People’s Budget event in Austin
Niketa Brar, center, in magenta, facilitates a participatory budgeting session in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood, one of the People’s Budget bus tour sites, on Sept. 26. Brar says more Chicagoans were engaged with the budgeting process this year than in the past, and she considers the narrow Chicago City Council vote to approve the budget as a promising sign. Courtesy of Chicago United for Equity
Niketa Brar of CUE at a People’s Budget event in Austin
Niketa Brar, center, in magenta, facilitates a participatory budgeting session in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood, one of the People’s Budget bus tour sites, on Sept. 26. Brar says more Chicagoans were engaged with the budgeting process this year than in the past, and she considers the narrow Chicago City Council vote to approve the budget as a promising sign. Courtesy of Chicago United for Equity

‘Bittersweet’ Chicago Budget Approval Offers A Hopeful Sign For Future City Budgets

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s spending plan was approved Tuesday by the Chicago City Council, 29-21, the closest budget vote in decades.

Niketa Brar, executive director of Chicago United for Equity (CUE), watched closely.

CUE, an advocacy group promoting racial equity in public policy, led a participatory budgeting campaign this year called the “People’s Budget Chicago.” For months, CUE canvassed the city’s most disinvested neighborhoods, communities with mostly Black and Brown residents.

In October, the group released its findings from their campaign: Most of the community members with whom CUE engaged on the city’s South and West sides said they wanted the city to spend more on housing, health and education — not on policing.

For Brar, Tuesday’s vote was “bittersweet.” She said the budget will have a “real cost” to everyday Chicagoans.

And while the budget didn’t align with the wishes community members expressed during CUE’s campaign, Brar took the narrow margin of approval as a hopeful sign.

“No matter how anyone tries to spin this, a 29-21 vote is giving movement leaders and organizers a reason to celebrate, a reason to go at this even harder next year,” she said.

WBEZ followed up with Brar after news of the budget approval. Below is a transcript of the conversation, edited for clarity and length.

What was your reaction to the budget passing?

There were two bittersweet reactions, the first being surprise that it came this close, and hope because I think a lot more aldermen broke with the mayor. But my second reaction was about the real cost that this budget is going to have. It’s disheartening because we are seeing more and more elected officials speak about historical inequity, but then turn around and perpetuate regressive policies on Black and Brown people today.

Talk a little bit more about the “real cost” the budget will have on everyday Chicagoans.

A couple of weeks before this vote, 74% of Chicagoans voted for the progressive tax that was pitched at the state level. You turn around and you have [in this city budget] a property tax [increase], which is possibly the most regressive tax you could come up with because it’s hitting people who are truly the most vulnerable, the hardest. How did this happen? Well, the only way that happens is if there’s one model that’s presented to you, and you’re voting “yes” or “no” on that model. What is most frustrating in this budget cycle is that the city failed to entertain or investigate any other options before levying a property tax. They had options that were presented by multiple aldermen; all of them went to the Rules Committee to die.

Most Chicagoans are living their lives right now and are not following politics. They are reading about this as an outcome in their lives. They will think about it every time they get a speeding ticket for going six miles over [the speed limit]. They will decry Chicago politics and continue to have less faith in our city’s government because of the way our city council negotiated this budget process and failed to consider other options for how to fill a budget gap.

Most of the aldermen who represent the city’s Black communities that CUE engaged with through the People’s Budget campaign voted for the budget. Did those leaders misrepresent the wishes of their constituents? Or did Lightfoot’s budget include the things they wanted? What gives?

I can’t speak to the individual decision-making of every alderman on city council, but one of the things that we heard time and time again is that the People’s Budget process started too late, and the budget negotiation had started behind closed doors much earlier. [They said], “I agree with you, and I wish we would have been able to advocate for this position back in July or August. But because it started so late, I would be going back on my word to the powers that be by bringing up new concerns that my community has expressed.” So I think that there is a certain degree of kind of political formalities that folks have addressed.

I also think that a huge part of this is how we lead in Chicago. The negotiations that happen oftentimes are not happening with caucuses, as much as they’re happening with individuals within the caucus. Whenever you end up with two elected officials in a closed-door conversation, the people lose. When our leadership is able to strike deals in ways that are not about accountability, that are not transparent to the public — every single time that happens, the people lose. Even if that deal benefits one community right — especially in those deals that benefit one community over another.

Do you think some of those aldermen gave into Mayor Lightfoot’s threat to the Black Caucus?

In this budget cycle, it was clear that it was politics as usual. The Black Caucus being threatened, “don’t come to me” for anything in the capital improvement plan for the next three years if you vote against this — I want us to think about that. That threat only works if you are coming from a marginalized community.

Our mayor campaigned on good government. She campaigned on an independent city government, and you cannot have an independent city government when the mayor’s office levies particular powers that, frankly, the mayor’s office should not have. In other cities, the mayor’s office does not have the ability to levy that kind of control over the capital improvement plan. Our budget vote has boiled down to a bartering system. The sort of pork barreling that we see in Congress is what happens in this budget fight.

Did you see more engagement from the public in this year’s budgeting process than in previous years?

For sure, we had increased engagement on this year’s budget. I personally believe that it was really because people are connecting the dots after George Floyd was murdered and the protests began in the streets. That translates to larger numbers of people who are engaged in the civic process and civic reform in general. So I do think that there’s a relationship between what we saw on the streets in June, translated to what we saw in City Hall even virtually this fall.

The reality is, this is how social change happens. You don’t win in the first round, and organizers are trained to sort of be built for the long haul.

What’s next for the People’s Budget now that this budget season is over?

We did this as a pilot this year. There is a lot that we’ve learned, there’s an incredible amount that the residents who participated learned about their elected leaders, about the budget process. This is definitely something that I believe will continue to grow and has a real opportunity to reshape the budgeting process. [We hope] to address what those aldermen were saying, about how they wish they had the People’s Budget earlier. Next year, we really will be able to get to more wards and more communities based on how big of a fundraising push we can do.

One of the things that’s obviously challenging in doing any kind of independent work, is that you have to fundraise for it. So we’re in the process of figuring out what that’s going to look like, in terms of scope, size, timeline, and how early we can start.

There were more elected leaders who referenced the “people’s budget” than ever have before. Even people who voted “yes” on the budget admitted that this was not a people’s budget. I think that speaks to the power of movement-building throughout the last several months. As people recover from COVID, as we become more safe in meeting and congregating and building community, I’m incredibly excited for what is possible.

Esther Yoon-Ji Kang is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her on Twitter @estheryjkang.