After more than two weeks of sometimes contentious hearings, on Nov. 24 the Chicago City Council narrowly passed a 2021 “pandemic budget” to close a $1.2 billion deficit. It’s a victory for first-term Mayor Lori Lightfoot. But the turbulent process revealed the difficulty of reconciling a liberal policy agenda with the economic fallout of Covid-19, even in a deep-blue city. And it’s mostly a short-term fix for the long-standing fiscal problems of Chicago, America’s third-largest city.
“This was a really hard year,” says Lightfoot, a Democrat. “Unlike anything in our city’s history.” About 65% of the budget gap resulted from losses connected to the coronavirus, as business in the tourism, convention, hotel, restaurant, and other sectors plummeted.
Lightfoot, the city’s first Black female mayor and first openly gay mayor, ran as an outsider in 2019, promising a commitment to social justice and equity as well as vowing to reform Chicago’s notorious political machine. Her $12.8 billion budget includes a $94 million property tax hike, a 3¢-per-gallon increase to the gas tax, a $30 million draw from reserves, and more funds raised from speed cameras, parking meters, and other fines and fees. The city is also refinancing and restructuring $1.7 billion in debt for a half-billion dollars in savings, a tactic referred to as “scoop and toss” that’s generally frowned upon by fiscal watchdogs.
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