Why your alderman (and mine) always votes yes on the Chicago city budget

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Alderman Ed Burke: befuddled that anyone would vote no on Rahm Emanuels budget
Mayor Rahm Emanuel made a keen observation after the City Council voted 46-3 to approve his 2013 city budget on Thursday:

"Reform never ends."

It's true—the reform process has been under way in Chicago for decades, yet somehow things just never seem to get fixed.

Take the city's $8.3 billion budget as an example. Passing it was essential, the mayor said, to "right a ship that had gone wrong."

That's Emanuel's way of saying he's intent on cleaning up the financial mess left by former mayor Richard M. Daley—the debt, the selloffs of city assets, the raiding of rainy-day funds, the use of one-time fixes, the gimmicks like overestimating how much money would flow in and putting positions on paper that never existed in reality. And to deal with all this, Mayor Emanuel says he needs the help of aldermen.

The mayor didn't point out that aldermen have been helping for years.

"This will be the 43rd time I've cast a ballot on the appropriation ordinance," noted council dean Ed Burke.

Burke, the finance committee chairman, signed off on every one of Daley's budgets.

"It's only my 22nd, and I've probably voted against more proposed budgets than I've voted for," claimed 49th Ward alderman Joe Moore. But this year's "is as nearly as perfect as you can get."

The alderman's memory was off by a bit—he voted for 14 of Daley's budgets while only opposing five.

"I'm a little at a loss to figure out why we aren't all in today," said Patrick O'Connor (40th). But since the vote wasn't unanimous, it just meant that Emanuel's last budget had improved things enough that "the crisis has passed and we have the luxury of dissent."

O'Connor serves as Emanuel's floor leader, just as he served as Daley's. He helped win passage of the Daley budgets that aldermen swore were keeping Chicago moving forward—but now apparently created the "crisis."

In fairness, these aldermen had plenty of company. If you click here you can see a chart showing how every alderman has voted on every budget from 1990 onward.

The votes have never been close. The most opposition came in 1991, Daley's third year on the job, when 18 aldermen said no to the mayor's 1992 budget (the council always signs off in November and December of the previous year).

In 16 of the last 24 years, no more than three aldermen voted against the mayor's budget proposals.

In that respect, the trio of aldermen who said nay on Thursday staged a minirevolt. Robert Fioretti (2nd), Scott Waguespack (32nd), and John Arena (45th) said they're opposed to job outsourcing and want more police.

True, voting no isn't the same as providing oversight. And one thing everyone agrees on is that budget oversight is the council's most important job, since the budget, being a budget, outlines everything city government does.

There's one little snag here: nobody on the council really knows whether the budgets are sound or not.

The mayor's financial team puts them together based largely on the budgets from the years before, with a healthy dose of the mayor's newest political priorities thrown in.

No one else conducts a thorough review—there's no independent analysis or second expert opinion of revenue projections, staffing levels, spending plans, privatization initiatives, or management efficiencies. Instead, aldermen get a week and a half of hearings to question city commissioners about their department policies. Few of the questions have anything to do with financial issues.

A handful of usually minor amendments are made to the budget. Aldermen vote on it a couple weeks later.

"Most of the questions I asked at the hearings were answered in writing in the last few days, and I had some provided to me this morning," Alderman Arena told me after the vote Thursday. "That doesn't give me enough time."

Nor do aldermen have experts on hand who can dissect the budgets for them. Arena says he enlists his three staffers to help, but they're also busy with their day jobs—fielding about a thousand calls a month from constituents.

New York City's budget votes are often lopsided too—but that happens after a six-month process that includes a mayoral proposal, hearings, review from an independent budget office, a counterproposal from the council, a revised proposal from the mayor, and another round of hearings.

Budget building and financial reform are different in Chicago. Aldermen are told the budget is smart, sound, and righting the ship. And who's to say it isn't?

Perhaps Burke put it best—as he so often does: "A vote of no on this budget, I think, does nothing to cure those shortcomings that have been identified."

So you might as well get aboard.

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