Mayor Emanuel has put his 2015 budget on the table, asking aldermen to approve a 7.3 billion spending plan that anticipates $61 million in various increased taxes and fees.
But his speech was light on details. In fact, says WBEZ political reporter Alex Keefe, it seemed to be more of a re-election speech, with an eye on his critics.
“We heard him say at several points in the speech,” Keefe says, “something like – Chicago doesn’t work unless it works for everybody, unless it works for every neighborhood. It’s not just jobs in the Loop, it’s jobs in Roseland. It’s jobs all over the city. And I think you see him answering this criticism of being a mayor 1%, of being a mayor for the corporations. So in more ways that one it was an election season speech but really, as far as what’s in the budget…we didn’t get to the nitty-gritty.”
Despite the consistent criticism of Mayor Emanuel’s handling of education issues, Tribune City Hall reporter John Byrne tells us he seems to be running on his education record.
“His budget address Wednesday was an education agenda speech,” he says. “It was running on his bona-fides during his first term, on full-day kindergarten – which we’ve been hearing from him for years, we heard the City-Colleges-give-scholarships-to-kids bit. He didn’t mention closing schools, but the first twenty minutes of the speech were almost all education accomplishments – after school programs for teens – so he apparently is gearing up to make that case.
“It was almost preemptively defensive in a way,” adds Keefe. “To list all of his accomplishments. And there was some look ahead – there was money for services, a lot of stuff about schools, but a lot of it was just talking about what he did.”
But that additional money for services like pothole filling – is critical, not only for the Mayor’s re-election, but also for the aldermen, according to Keefe.
“He’s doing the holy trinity – you’re giving more money to to tree trimming, killing rats and blasting graffiti. This is an election year.”
That doesn’t prevent some aldermen from pointing out, however, that the process isn’t exactly collaborative.
“We hear this every time during the budget process,” Keefe tells us. “They say, listen, we just got these budget documents for the first time yesterday, and we weren’t allowed to take them out of the room, and this is top-down governing, and they don’t include us in this process, and this budget won’t change.”
But that’s not to say that the Mayor isn’t flexible on some points. “Every year, Emanuel has given something back, from when he introduces the budget to when it passes,” explains Byrne. “And I really believe that to a certain extent he delivers the budget thinking, I’m gonna give this back. So that when we pass it, I can answer those critics. And say, Alderman Reilly came to me and said this garage tax was a bad idea. So we lowered it…I think he introduces a ten-million dollar garage tax increase, as he does this year, thinking to himself, we’re gonna lower that to three million dollars so I can say that Reilly complained about hitting people who want to park downtown and I listened”
Then there’s the pension issue.
“Chicago for decades and decades lowballed the amount that they should’ve paid into pensions,” Keefe says. “In 2010 the Legislature passed this law saying, OK, because you’ve been lowballing them, starting in 2015 (or 2016 if you ask City Hall) you’re gonna have to basically make up for all the stuff you should’ve been paying. And you’re gonna have to do it more or less right away. Well, this is a problem, because suddenly you’re hitting a $550 million wall to pay for police and fire pensions. So the mayor has two choices. One, find $550 million…or two, go to Springfield and change the rules of the game…in order to lower that initial payment and get them on a payment schedule.
“Or,” adds Byrne, “Three, wait until after the election and say, property taxes, guys, I did my best…”
“The bottom line is there’s this booming silence about what’s gonna happen until, maybe after the election,” Keefe concludes.
But the Mayor seems to be moving toward a grand compromise with the Legislature after the elections that would force them to raise taxes and cut pensions, not Rahm Emanuel.
“He and his budget people who came to the Trib editorial board were talking quite a bit about a ‘statewide solution’. Looking at a state sales tax or something like that,” says Byrne.
“This seems to be a tactic in order to get downstate lawmakers to vote on, probably cutting, Chicago police and fire pensions,” Keefe explains. “There’s a police and fire pension problem all over Illinois, it’s not just the City of Chicago, so this could be one legislative tactic.”
And finally, 2015 politics. After Karen Lewis’s terrible health problems forced her out of the race, it appears that Rahm Emanuel will face no serious, well-financed challenger. And no place to spend all his campaign money, according to Byrne.
“I mean, he’s got nine million dollars he’s gotta spend somewhere. What’s he gonna do? Can you spend nine million in campaign money just on beating up Bob Fioretti and Amara Enyia?”