Arriving for a lunch date Friday afternoon in River North, Ben Winick looks rumpled. It’s a practiced look he’s become known for over the last ten years in Springfield that becomes both him and the policy positions he’s been steadily risen through. Most recently nominated as the director of the new City Council Office of Financial Analysis, Winick is expected to be formally appointed to the new position when the Office’s oversight committee meets for the first time some time in June.
His new job won’t be easy. Chicago is in a financial crisis, the City Council has a long history of rubberstamping mayoral budgets, and he’ll be expected to exhibit independence from the mayor while working for Budget Committee Chairman Carrie Austin, one of the mayor’s closest allies. But Winick has a positive attitude. “Chicago is a tremendous city. A very vibrant city with a vibrant diverse economy,” he says. “There are certainly challenges moving forward, but nothing that I would say is insurmountable, especially for a city as great as Chicago.”
Last Friday Aldertrack sat down for lunch with Winick to learn a bit more how he thinks he can bring financial independence to the Chicago City Council with five staffers and a $500,000 annual budget. He ordered bacon and scrambled eggs.
Originally from Galesburg, in Western Illinois, Ben Winick is the son of the late, highly regarded Knox County Democratic Chairman, Norm Winick, a man from whom many other county chairs took their lead. Ben got his start in Democratic politics, volunteering and working on local campaigns, then after finishing college at University of Wisconsin, he landed a policy job as a senior advisor to then Lt. Governor Pat Quinn in 2005. There, he was exposed to the machinery of state government and became a trusted advisor to Quinn.
Then, in January 2009, Winick moved with Quinn to take over the governor’s office after Gov. Rod Blagojevich was impeached. Quickly, Winick experienced a trial by fire in the governor’s legislative affairs operation, which meant budget issues. “Unlike most governors, there wasn’t a transition,”says Winick. “Blagojevich was arrested and next thing you know he’s gone. So it was a small group of us trying to get our arms around things trying to understand what the heck was going on.”
That year, for the 2010 budget, the state legislature decided to take a pass on enacting a budget, instead putting together a lump sum and declaring Gov. Quinn responsible for figuring out how much should go to what agencies. Winick, as a member of Quinn’s legislative affairs team, suddenly became a budget expert, holding implementation meetings with all the state agencies.
“I became more entrenched in the legislative process but [also] more involved in budget issues with the Governor, says Winick, “Until the Governor appointed Jerry Stermer as Director of OMB and then Jerry called and said, ‘I would like you to come over and work at OMB.’”
From there Winick worked his way up the ladder, eventually becoming Chief of Staff of the Office of Management and Budget, and in late 2014, after Pat Quinn appointed Stermer as Comptroller to succeed the late Judy Barr Topinka, Winick become Director of OMB.
But then something interesting happened. After Republican Bruce Rauner assumed the Governor’s office in January this year, he asked Winick to stick around for a while, an unusual move, considering how partisan the position tends to be.
Amanda Vinicky, statehouse reporter for Illinois Public Radio, says that shouldn’t be a surprise. Winick is, she says, “respected for being smart and wonky. For all of the top people [former Gov. Pat Quinn] trusted, Ben was known as the budget guy who knew his stuff and knew the in and outs.” Because he was asked to stick around for a few months after Rauner took over, it says something about how important he was to the process, Vinicky says.
Then, in late March, Winick left OMB and the Rauner administration, landing as Vice President for Policy at Innovation Illinois, a non-partisan advocacy group led by staunch Quinn supporters. A newly created group, Winick is working out of temporary space in the startup incubator 1871, in Merchandise Mart.
The Committee on Financial Analysis (COFA), led by Budget Committee Chairman Carrie Austin (34), is not expected to meet until later in June. Winick thinks he won’t start work until July, giving him a scant three months to hire a staff and set up an office before the mayoral budget is likely to come out in September.
There’s also likely to be some intense discussions on COFA, which besides Austin, includes Finance Committee Chairman Ed Burke (14), Ald. Rick Munoz (22), Ald. Pat Dowell (3), Ald. Ameya Pawar (47) and Machinists Local 126 Business Director Joseph Pijanowski. Carole Brown, a managing director at Barclays and former CTA Chairman, was originally slated for the committee but will not join since she was recently appointed Chicago’s Chief Financial Officer.
Besides an analysis of the mayoral budget, with some suggested options for Council to act on, Winick’s new office will have eight other priorities as part of the enacting legislation, including analysis of the city’s annual audit, analysis of ratings agency actions, and quarterly reports of financial impact statements from the city. Is it realistic that he can do all that in the first year?
“It will be a difficult task, but I think it can be done, says Winick slowly. “I think all of those things can get done in the first year.”
While the Office on Financial Analysis has a broad purview, it only has oversight over parts the City Council has direct budget authority. That means no oversight over the Public Schools, Transit Authority, Housing Authority or the Park District.
The enacting legislation for the new office also includes a key phrase, “All aldermanic briefings related to COFA reports shall be coordinated through the Chairman of the Committee on Budget,” effectively giving Chairman Austin total control over any work produced by Winick. An important part of how his office will operate.
What follows is a condensed and edited version of Friday’s interview.
Aldertrack: What happens to reports? Have you talked with Ald. Carrie Austin about it?
Winick: Not really. Not at this point. I would be working close with the Budget Committee and looking for the most appropriate way to go, depending on their vote.
Do you have a vision that your work would be available to the public?
It would be my expectation that I would be working collaboratively with Budget Committee Chairman Austin. Things will be made public as appropriate.
Usually the mayor introduces a budget, there’s two weeks of hearings and then whatever the Mayor wants gets passed. Do you see your position changing that?
I don’t want to say that I see this position changing that necessarily. I think a lot of it depends on what is in the Mayor’s proposal [and] through my analysis whether there are alternative decisions that can be presented to the City Council. Maybe when the Mayor presents his budget this fall, it may be something like where there aren’t really too many good alternative options out there. That’s something we’re just going to have to wait and see.
Will the City of Chicago have flexibility, based on the circumstances presented to them in Springfield?
The legislative session is still going on. I was there for Gov. Rauner’s speech [to the City Council] . We’ll see what happens this session.
How do you stay independent? Your boss is one of the Mayor’s closest allies and people on your board are closely tied to the mayor.
To me, my big focus on this is just to give an honest review of what is being presented by the Mayor and what the options are to the City Council. That is my main route to maintaining my independence. I have discussed this with the aldermen, I’m going to be a straight shooter, I have some things with the Mayor’s Office I might agree with, I might not. I don’t necessarily see this–it’s not my role to be nitpicky about what’s going on with the City’s budget. It’s my role to help the City Council [understand] what is actually in the plan and what are some of the options for them to consider. I think that is going to be my angle of maintaining independence. I’m here as a resource, “OK guys, the numbers don’t lie, it is what it is.”
What do you see your relationship with places like Civic Federation and the Committee on Tax and Budget Accountability?
When I was with the State, I had a good working relationship with the Civic Federation and CTBA. I definitely plan on reviewing their recommendations, both in terms of what they have suggested in the past as well as going forward. The city has challenges and I think in my role I need to be open to all ideas in terms of moving forward.
Do you have any ideas in terms of what costs and expenses you might focus on?
That’s something I can’t really discuss right now, in terms of not wanting to get ahead of the process.
Have you been briefed at all, seen any of the documents, or are you still outside the door?
I’m still outside the door. I’m not planning on starting until July, so right now I’m going through documents that are publically available.
Are there any revenue ideas or savings from across Illinois or other states that you have in mind that you might be able to bring with you?
Again, that’s a thing that I’ll be able to talk about more once I get through the process and working with the members of City Council.
What’s the difference between what you will do and what the inspector general does?
A lot of the inspector general’s audit functions are focusing on things that have already happened. Whereas, I think it’s my job in working with the City Council to be a resource on, “these are the options before you today. And these are the actions you might consider moving forward, and not in the past.” More forward looking.
Do you think your new job is to tell Moody’s to go stick it?
I don’t think Moody’s cares what I have to say.
I think the review process for that would be to say, this is what Moody’s or Fitch or S&P or Kroll’s said, this is why they said it. These are potential actions to get them to reverse course.
Do you think Chicago’s getting a raw deal from Moody’s?
Without being more in depth in what’s going on with the city, I can’t comment on that.