Two critical, seemingly unrelated facts are bearing down as the Chicago City budget moves to a vote next Wednesday. First, nobody has offered an alternative to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to dig out of Chicago’s fiscal hole. And second, Governor Bruce Rauner made $53 million last year. The two items are more connected than you may think, and are the chief factors why Chicago remains in dire financial straits.
To recap, Chicago desperately needs Illinois government to enact three big ticket items. The Chicago Public School Board passed a budget that only adequately funds its system through December. $400 million more is needed from state government to make it to June 2016, officials say. The Chicago City Council is preparing to enact a budget that includes a phased-in $544 million a year property tax increase, but relies on state government to enact a pension reform that reduces payments by $220 million a year, and a doubling of the homeowners exemption that lifts the property tax burden off the majority of residential property owners.
While the state legislature is controlled by Democrats who are likely to support Chicago’s financial needs, Gov. Rauner, who is Republican, made it clear in a speech to City Council last July: “For Chicago to get what it wants, Illinois must get what it needs… We don’t have the money to bail out Chicago.”
What Rauner means is that Illinois needs to follow his plan for eliminating government employee collective bargaining, a veritable death sentence for Democrats in state government and deeply unpopular in union-blue Chicago.
Democrats in the Illinois House and Senate have big enough majorities to override Rauner’s vetoes, but in the House the margin is razor-thin: No extra votes. However, at least four Democrats have suggested they would vote against additional state spending on behalf of Chicago.
And yet, only one plan has been proposed for Chicago: Mayor Emanuel’s. Unlike state, federal or even Cook County government, Chicago’s City Council has not engendered an alternative solution, like cutting city services or jacking up taxes even more. So aldermen are lining up behind the Mayor even as some doubt the long-term revenue will be enough to pay for the city’s mountain of debt.
There’s no question the Mayor’s plan will pass City Council next Wednesday. This week, Aldertrack sifted through public statements, talked to aldermen and their staff, and reviewed each ward’s political viability. There are enough aldermen with a firm grip on their wards that the Mayor can depend on. And then there are a few nearing retirement that could take a few bad votes in return for a cushy job and help to pass on their seat to a chosen successor.
By our count there will be at least 16 “no” votes against the property tax and budget, maybe as many as 22, but the mayor certainly won’t lose the vote, or even have to break a tie of 25-25.
All this puts our city on a collision course with a governor who seems to enjoy a good game of chicken and has nothing personal to lose. After all, he’s already made his millions as a tremendously successful businessman. As proof, this month he released his 2014 tax return, showing that he made $53 million last year.
Past Illinois governors needed public support, or at least a modicum of popularity, to build on for a post-government career. Bruce Rauner needs none of that. Politics is a second act for him, and he’s come to office with a specific worldview and a plan to make it happen.
Someone who took a more traditional path, by climbing up the political ladder to the Governor’s mansion, might buckle under the political pressure. Give in today to fight another day. But if Rauner’s plan doesn’t work out, he’ll always live comfortably. If Illinois and Chicago suffers, Bruce Rauner won’t.
Under those circumstances, it would seem Chicago’s odds are not great. But there’s no other plan in the offing. So into the breach our city government goes.