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Monday, March 9, 2015

6 Economic Thoughts

One of the Chicago Mayoral Election's greatest phantom issues is entering the race: "which candidate will solve the impending economic crisis?" This question sounds innocent enough, for the City of Chicago does face daunting economic issues, specifically with increasing pension payments due. Undoubtedly, Mayor Rahm Emanuel will attempt to paint himself as the fiscally sound candidate, given his background and privileged status as incumbent. On the other hand, even from innocent curiosity, many will pressure Commissioner Jesus Garcia into providing his own economic plan (which is apparently coming this week).

These economic plans will only distract from the stakes of the Mayoral election, for several reasons:

(1) Given the decreasing bond ratings in the City Government (and CPS), anyone can lead this government into economic crisis. There is no guarantee that any plan whatsoever will lead this government out of an impending bond-rating crisis. Furthermore, for his investment background and apparent superiority regarding fiscal matters, Mayor Emanuel has already overseen these recent bond downgrades. So, if the current Mayor cannot currently solve the budget crisis, what would lead anyone to believe that another term will do the trick? (Are bond issues so tricky that they take more than four years to solve?)

When someone asks "What is 'Chuy''s plan for the budget crisis?," say, "Why did Mayor Emanuel's policies lead to two recent bond downgrades?" There is obviously no guarantee that Commissioner Garcia will solve this issue, but one needs to remember that Mayor Emanuel already hasn't solved it (and, in fact, has arguably made things worse).

(2) Mayor Emanuel has already borrowed, extensively, to cover basic municipal bills. CPS already borrowed 2016 Property Tax money to balance its current budget. Any potential heat placed on Commissioner Garcia's plan, or potential fiscal shortcomings, ought to be redirected to the fact that if the challenger takes ahold of Chicago, he will be replacing a Mayor that could not actually balance the budget.

I understand that "Garcia can't possibly do worse than Emanuel" is not really an argument, since Commissioner Garcia obviously could fail to solve these issues if he were to be elected Mayor. However, in re-electing Mayor Emanuel, one ought to ask, "if the Mayor could not solve these issues in his previous four years, why will he solve them in the next four years?"

(3) It stands to reason that property taxes will rise regardless of who takes office. Sorry. It's not an effective argument for or against either candidate to suggest that property taxes may or may not rise, when Alderpersons working on the budget already foresee a tax hike.

(So, you can ask, "If I'm living in a city where my property taxes will increase, whose lifestyle policies do I prefer? Which candidate offers the best controls for citizens?")

(4) There are allegedly Aldermen arguing that Commissioner Garcia will be unable to solve fiscal issues while abolishing Red Light Cameras, and implementing anything resembling a "reform" government on Tax Increment Financing (TIF) policies (or Property Tax issues). This may be true. However, if one assumes that Chicago's economic issues will be difficult to solve regardless of raising revenue from red-light cameras, issues like red-light cameras become valuable lifestyle issues: if the City of Chicago's budget fails and the bond rating continues to fall, do you want to live in a City that continues to reach into your own pocket, or do you prefer to find alternative solutions?

(5) The same can be said for an Elected School Board. The honest truth is that if Mayor Emanuel's government has not been able to solve major fiscal issues, taking a chance on a Mayor that may establish an Elected School Board gives the citizens another potential weapon against the power of their government (if that seems futile, look at Mayor Emanuel remove red light cameras already; if the prospect of a new Mayor is scaring Mayor Emanuel into concessionary tactics, imagine what an angry-and-informed electorate can accomplish with the school board).

(6) Finally, in the context of these issues, pushing TIF reform is arguably the most important of Mayoral issues. First and foremost, as the Chicago Reader suggested after the February election, if Commissioner Garcia can push the TIF issue in debates, he can get Mayor Emanuel to reveal the reality of a reported $1.7 billion TIF surplus. If such a surplus exists, citizens ought to vote for the candidate that is most likely to return those syphoned property tax dollars to taxpayers or municipal bodies (like the parks, schools, etc.).

Furthermore, as the TIF program continually draws property tax money away from schools and parks (and other municipal services), citizens of Chicago ought to repeat the economic doomsday question: if the next mayor cannot solve budget issues, do you want to live in a city that nevertheless takes property tax dollars and applies them to private, sometimes-corporate interests and projects? Is it acceptable to us, as citizens, to see the Mayor of Chicago continuing a TIF program that draws property taxes away from cash strapped citizens in order to grow an economy that is not creating enough revenue to produce a sound budget?

(When you think about comments like that of Senator Mark Kirk, who hinted that Chicago would collapse into "Detroit" if Commissioner Garcia is elected Mayor, think about Mayor Emanuel's use of TIF programs to "grow" an economy that is teetering on the edge of collapse in spite of those apparent revenue spurs to "growth").

These six difficult issues should help voters understand why supporting Commissioner Garcia, and opposing Mayor Emanuel, is a crucial election decision. It is not enough to hint that "Chuy" offers pie-in-the-sky, unrealistic reforms that he can't deliver on. I think we all understand that he won't deliver on everything. But the very potential for civic improvement must be on our minds: Mayor Emanuel's failed budgets, borrowing practices, bond failures, school failures, property tax failures, red-light camera failures, and TIF failures ought to put into perspective why voting him out is crucial for the health of the city. Commissioner Garcia may not solve every problem, but at the very least, the City of Chicago will benefit from the potential absence of the TIF program, the absence of red-light cameras, and an Elected School Board should everything else go south. This is our chance to make sure that should things turn sour, we retain as many controls as possible over our government.

Please direct corrections or comments to @SpectiveWax on Twitter, or spectiveaudio [at] gmail [dot] com.