Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s ‘Pandemic’ Chicago Budget Passes in Narrow Vote

Chicago Budget hearings
In this Sunday, March 15, 2020, file photo, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks to reporters at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago. The Chicago City Council will vote Tuesday on a $13 billion budget proposed by the mayor. Teresa Crawford / AP Photo
Chicago Budget hearings
In this Sunday, March 15, 2020, file photo, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks to reporters at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago. The Chicago City Council will vote Tuesday on a $13 billion budget proposed by the mayor. Teresa Crawford / AP Photo

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s ‘Pandemic’ Chicago Budget Passes in Narrow Vote

Chicago’s City Council narrowly approved Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s $12.8 billion 2021 ‘pandemic’ budget, setting in motion a massive borrowing plan and a $94 property tax increase.

The 2021 budget passed by a vote of 29 to 21.

Dozens of aldermen on both sides spoke passionately about their decision.

“No one wakes up in the morning wanting to raise taxes, especially as families across the city are struggling to stay healthy and financially solvent,” said budget chair Ald. Pat Dowell, 3rd Ward. “But unprecedented time calls for tough decisions to be made. … Right now, this proposal is the best of our very limited options.”

Ald. Mike Rodriguez, 22nd, voted yes after holding his decision close to the chest until Tuesday’s meeting.

“It wasn’t an easy decision,” Rodriguez said. “The budget contains items that are difficult to stomach. The increases in fines and fees will be difficult for working families.”

The 2021 spending plan increases the city’s motor fuel tax, adds more parking meters, and increases the fines for speeding tickets in zones near schools and parks.

Rodriguez is a member of the Progressive Caucus, which did not vote as a bloc. Several members voted no, saying they did so because the budget did not reduce the police budget by enough and relied too much on other austerity measures.

Byron Sigcho-Lopez, 25th, voted no, as he did in 2019. In his remarks, he urged the City Council to work together on a 2022 budget “that does less for corporate America, Wall Street banks and luxury developers and does more for the people of Chicago.

”Lightfoot made strides in recent weeks to get the votes she needed by ditching a plan to layoff at least 350 unionized city workers. She also committed an additional $10 million for violence prevention organizations to court votes from several key Black Caucus members and money for mental health services to appease the more progressive side of the council.

“Don’t give me crumbs and tell me it’s cake,” said Ald. Jeanette Taylor, 20th Ward, who voted no. “We’re in a global pandemic and we shouldn’t be balancing this budget on the backs of taxpayers.”

Several aldermen split their votes, supporting the spending plan but voting against the revenue ordinances, such as the property tax increase. Ald. Roberto Maldonado, 26th Ward, said he couldn’t support the property tax increase because his ward is facing severe gentrification pressures.

“In good conscience, I just can never vote for this property tax increase, and especially automatic annual increases based upon [inflation],” Maldonado said, adding that his own mother-in-law is selling her home because the property tax bill is too high.

After the vote, Lightfoot thanked aldermen, city officials, and the public for working through the democratic process to pass a budget.

“As many of you said, and I agree, this is not the end,” Lightfoot said. “This is the start of a series of things that we must get done on behalf of the people in 2021 and beyond.”

Groups lobbied aldermen for and against support

In the final days, several groups ramped up lobbying efforts to sway aldermen. The Chicago Federation of Labor supported the Mayor’s budget after she agreed not to layoff unionized city workers. The CFL released a website that encouraged Chicagoans to call a dozen aldermen who at that time hadn’t yet committed to voting yes.

Meanwhile, United Working Families, a pro-labor organization that went hard against the mayor’s 2019 election, lobbied aldermen to reject the budget, saying the $1 million in mental health crisis response models is “offensively small.”

In addition to the property tax increase and higher fines and fees, this “pandemic” budget, as Lightfoot has been referring to it, relies on a multi-billion borrowing plan tied to the spending plan.

The revenue is needed, the mayor’s finance team told aldermen, to cover substantial revenue losses due to the coronavirus pandemic. The city was facing a $1.2 billion shortfall for 2021. A portion of the borrowing will also cover the cost of the city’s five-year capital plan which outlines repairs to city streets and bridges.

The Civic Federation, a government watchdog group, gave their “qualified support” of the budget, citing concerns with the mayor’s debt restructuring plan. In the past, the group’s president Lawrence Msall has criticized previous administrations for their over-reliance on borrowing.

In his executive summary, Msall wrote, “Our support is qualified because the Federation cannot independently verify the City’s contention that the extraordinarily large debt restructuring it will rely on to close its FY2020 and FY2021 deficits is sustainable.” He added, “The City does not have a lot of good options, but it is important to note that scoop-and-toss bond financing is not good policy.”

Challenges to budget revealed in committee

Lightfoot’s narrow path to getting her budget passed was made clear when aldermen first considered it in committee last week. Twelve aldermen voted against the revenue items in the Finance Committee, many representing more well-off wards with higher rates of homeownership. It was a broad coalition that included mayoral allies in leadership roles, like Beverly’s Ald. Matt O’Shea, 19th Ward, and Lakeview’s Ald. Tom Tunney, 44th Ward.

Several Southwest Side aldermen also rejected the revenue plan in committee, including Ald. Silvana Tabares, 23rd Ward; Ald. Marty Quinn, 13th Ward; Ald. Ed Burke, 14th Ward; and Ald. Raymond Lopez, 15th Ward.

Ironically, all of these aldermen, except Tabares who was not in office yet, voted in favor of a record property tax hike in 2015 under then-mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Aldermen who represent the wealthy lakefront and downtown, Ald. Brian Hopkins, 2nd Ward, and Ald. Brendan Reilly, 42nd Ward, both opposed Lightfoot’s budget in committee last week and both voted no on Emanuel’s 2015 property tax increase.

In committee, there was less opposition to the spending side of the ledger. Eight aldermen in the Budget Committee, several of whom also voted against the revenue item in finance, rejected the ordinances that spell out where the money will be allocated.

Joining them was Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, 35th Ward, of Logan Square. He said after taking a survey of more than 400 residents in his ward, he learned a majority of his residents rejected the budget.

“Seventy-one percent said that they wanted to balance this budget by cutting from the Chicago police department. 92% said they wanted to look at alternatives for a property tax increase,” he said.

Becky Vevea and Claudia Morell cover City Hall for WBEZ. Follow them @beckyvevea @claudiamorell.

This story has been updated to clarify that the CFL’s call list to support the budget included aldermen who at the time of the site’s launch had not yet committed to voting yes.