Rahm throws his weight behind tax, marijuana reforms
Mayor Emanuel supports key proposals from Gov.-elect Pritzker, with plans to use Chicago’s share of revenues to address pensions
By Ted Cox
CHICAGO — As Mayor Rahm Emanuel prepares to leave office, his legislative goals are matching up with those of Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker as he prepares to take office next month.
Emanuel, who has already announced he won’t seek re-election next year, threw his political support behind key Pritzker initiatives including amending the state constitution to allow a graduated income tax and legalizing marijuana Wednesday in an address on pension funding to the Chicago City Council.
Calling pensions the “one flashing yellow light of uncertainty and instability about Chicago’s future,” Emanuel said, “There is no single solution to this challenge.” He called for a series of “sequential steps” to address the city’s pension shortfall, brought on by what he called “pension holidays” during budget crunches and “too many elected officials, labor leaders, and civic leaders” agreeing to contracts that led to “a funding and benefits system that was not sustainable and therefore not responsible.”
According to Emanuel, the city has made $800 million in extra pension payments to address shortfalls since 2014, but still faces an extra $276 million in police and firefighter pension payments in 2020 and $310 million for other city pensions in 2022. Exponentially larger, Illinois has a pension debt that’s been estimated at $130 billion.
“These contributions must be made,” Emanuel said. “There are no ifs, ands, or buts about it. That is not just my opinion. That is the law.”
“These contributions must be made. There are no ifs, ands, or buts about it. That is not just my opinion. That is the law.”
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel on pensions (One Illinois/Ted Cox)
Emanuel announced support for amending the state constitution to allow altering pension benefits — including cost-of-living hikes he called excessive given the low rate of inflation — as well as allowing a progressive income tax. He also supported legalizing recreational marijuana, with plans to allot Chicago’s share of the revenues directly to pension funds.
Emanuel gave a fierce defense of pensions in a news conference after his speech, but he was equally forcible on a progressive income tax, saying, “There are only four states like ours with a constitutionally mandated flat tax. It is regressive, it is a fiscal straightjacket, and amending the constitution is the only way to set things right.”
He also pushed for the General Assembly to allow a Chicago-owned casino, again with revenues going directly to city pensions. He said state Rep. Bob Rita of Oak Lawn would sponsor a bill on that proposal next month.
“I believe recreational marijuana has social costs that must be considered,” Emanuel said toward the end of his half-hour speech. “And, like a casino, revenue would take time to be realized.
“But if the state goes down that path, those revenues can and should be used to further solidify our pensions without asking more of Chicago taxpayers. If we take all of these steps,” he added, “we will dramatically reduce what is asked of our taxpayers.”
The Pritzker transition team acknowledged the support. Pritzker spokesman Jordan Abudayyah issued a statement saying: “As J.B. has said, pensions are a promise and the state has a responsibility to live up to that promise. As governor, he will work with the General Assembly to propose a balanced budget that meets our pension obligations and puts the state on a more sustainable path forward.”
Just this week, in response to speculation that Illinois could yet come from behind and beat Michigan to making recreational marijuana legal and available, Pritzker was quoted by National Public Radio Illinois as saying: “There’s an opportunity for us to be the first state in the Midwest to make it available, and so I think the legislature should get at it.”
“You’re not going to solve this problem just with more money from taxpayers,” Emanuel said, citing the reasons behind his multi-pronged approach.
Emanuel did not mention gas taxes in his speech, but on Tuesday he sided with suburban mayors saying they’d support a 20- to 30-cent-a-gallon hike in gas taxes to help fund a statewide transportation capital bill.
“J.B. knows upgrading our infrastructure is an investment that creates jobs and attracts more businesses to the state,” Abudayyeh said. “That’s why he’s committed to working across the aisle to ensure we get a capital bill that will set Illinois on the right path for years to come.”
Emanuel acknowledged political “headwinds” in the General Assembly, and was asked if, as a lame duck, he still had the clout to exert an influence on legislators.
“Yes,” he said. “Fact is, this isn’t about clout. This is about the city’s future.”
As he said at the end of his speech: “With candor, courage, and a commitment to work together, we can rise to meet this challenge as we have risen to meet every challenge facing this city.”