I've got another idea for how to take care of the city's budget deficit, and it doesn't involve touching anything as sacred as TIF slush funds.
My colleague Whet Moser has a suggestion for city officials looking to plug another massive budget deficit: tap into the $1 billion of taxpayer money that's sitting in the bank, waiting for Mayor Daley and the aldermen to decide which pet projects to spend it on.
Here's an alternative. Chicago officials have been praising the wisdom of LA leaders ever since Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa started talking about following our lead and raising cash by privatizing their parking meters.
I'm talking about following their lead—with a tax on pot.
The city of Oakland has already done it. Berkeley, San Francisco, and LA are mulling it. "There will be some cash-strapped areas that will use this to balance their budgets," one of the operators of a medical marijuana facility recently predicted in the LA Times.
Needless to say, the city and state would first have to approve the sale of medical marijuana, which is now widely available in California. When I was in Venice Beach not too long ago, vendors stood on the sidewalk encouraging passers-by to step inside and get a "diagnosis" that would warrant a "prescription."
For anything like that to happen here, Mayor Daley would have to flip-flop on his recent flip-flop decriminalizing ganja. Something tells me that's more likely after October 2, when he no longer has to try to impress the International Olympic Committee.
Legalizing and taxing pot makes sense on several levels. For starters, many of the city's other revenue streams are dropping fast; the budget is in such bad shape because Daley and his budget team predicted collecting about as much in sales, hotel, and real estate transfer taxes in 2009 as they did last year, even though it was clear when they finished the budget last fall that the worst recession in decades was upon us. The demand for pot is a bit more stable than the demand for new condos and downtown hotel rooms.
And making marijuana distribution a legal, taxed activity would also lessen the burden on cops, who will need the help. Even with a federal grant to hire 50 more officers, the Chicago Police Department will have hundreds of fewer cops on the street at a time when violence appears to be on the rise.
"Why do we arrest the individual, seize the marijuana, [go] to court and they’re all thrown out?" Mayor Daley mused a few years ago. "It costs you a lot of money for police officers to go to court."