I was flying home from a much-needed trip out of the country—red wine and meat for everyone in Argentina!—when the Chicago City Council finally got around to challenging the mayor on his tax increment financing scam.
Damn, can't a guy catch a break? I mean, I've been banging the TIF drum for almost ten years and I have to be out of town when somebody finally starts a fight with the mayor over it?
Well, it's a good thing they did, so I won't complain.
Yes, I'm praising aldermen—the 11 of them who stuck their necks out, and now risk having the mayor chop their heads off.
Around here, that's a revolt. Here's how it happened.
As you may know by now, the TIFs are a tax—a surcharge that the mayor and the City Council effectively add to your property tax bill without telling you.
That means you, the taxpayer, end up handing over at least $450 million a year on top of your regular taxes.
Ostensibly the money pays for things you want, like schools, but then it's diverted to the mayor to spend on things he wants, like the DePaul basketball arena and Marriott hotel he's building in the South Loop. That project will devour at least $92 million in TIF funds.
TIF funds are also unfairly distributed, so the wealthiest communities get more money than the poorest ones, even though the program is supposed to seed development in the poorest neighborhoods.
Yet for all these flaws, the TIF program has one essential quality that makes it too powerful to resist. It gives Mayor Emanuel hundreds of millions of dollars that he's free to spend pretty much as he likes.
As such, TIFs represent the single greatest source of discretionary money that the mayor has at his disposal. Whenever an alderman or a developer or a social service group needs money, they have to crawl to the mayor and say, "Boss, can you spare me some TIF change?"
It's power. And Mayor Emanuel's not about to give it up.
Yes, I'm praising aldermen—the 11 who stuck their necks out, and now risk having the mayor chop their heads off.
Thus, TIFs present a special challenge for our elected officials: How can they act like they care about stuff like budget reform, transparency, fighting poverty, and funding schools while not actually doing anything about it?
Mayor Daley beat back any potential challenge by making stuff up about the program. He said TIFs don't raise property taxes, even though they do. And he declared that almost all the TIF money goes to schools, even though it doesn't.
Mayor Emanuel has been a little craftier. He claimed to have reformed the program, even though he didn't, which left him free to abuse it.
With stuff like the aforementioned South Loop boondoggle.
It's also a problem for those aldermen who were elected as TIF reformers—making up a good chunk of the council. They now must figure out how to maintain a shred of credibility without upsetting the mayor, whose hands are tightly clamped around their . . .
Well, you know where they're clamped. Metaphorically, of course.
On July 24, Aldermen Robert Fioretti and Scott Waguespack—two leaders of the progressive caucus—introduced an ordinance calling on the mayor to send a portion of the TIF surplus to the schools.
Their proposal came at a time when Mayor Emanuel was claiming the schools were so broke that he had to fire teachers, cut programs, and force principals to choose between buying toilet paper or copy paper, since they didn't always have money for both.
Or maybe the mayor wanted them to use copy paper as toilet paper.
Enraged at the cuts, activists took to the streets demanding that the mayor redirect much of the $1.7 billion in surplus TIF funds back to the schools.
For the aldermen, it was a throw-a-bone-to-the-peasants moment.
And so 30 aldermen signed on as cosponsors to the Fioretti/Waguespack proposal—more than enough to pass it then and there so that the schools could get the money they needed to hire back teachers and pay for art, music, and toilet paper.
Well, the TIF reform fervor didn't last long. Mayor Emanuel directed his council allies to send the ordinance to the rules committee, which is where they bury legislation he doesn't want the council to vote on.
Months passed. The rules committee chairman, Alderman Michelle Harris, made it clear she had no intention of holding a hearing on the proposal.
So the progressives decided to do the unthinkable—they would invoke rule 41, an obscure provision that enables any two aldermen to move a proposal out of committee to the full council.
Thus, the stage was set for last Wednesday's council fireworks.
"I got up and invoked rule 41," Waguespack says.
He and the other progressives were asking the council to vote on discharging the TIF surplus proposal from the rules committee.
In other words, they were challenging their colleagues to take a very public stand against a very retributive mayor.
Naturally, many of his colleagues were upset at having their bluff so publicly called.
"You have thrown my signature back into my face," said Alderman Ameya Pawar, who went on to liken the progressives to the Tea Party. Despite signing on earlier, Pawar said the TIF proposal is flawed.
Alderman Pat O'Connor, the mayor's floor leader, said the progressives' tactics reminded him of what aldermen used to do back in the 1980s Council Wars.
That was when 28 white aldermen banded together to sabotage the administration of Mayor Harold Washington, the city's first and only elected black mayor.
Alderman O'Connor should know a thing or two about Council Wars, since he was one of the 28 white aldermen doing the sabotaging.
In defense of Alderman O'Connor, at least he's not a hypocrite on this issue. Unlike Alderman Pawar, he never pretended to support TIF reform.
Quite the contrary, he's always been a supporter of whatever the boss tells him to support. This time around, it's less money for schools and higher taxes for taxpayers.
In any regard, the council wound up voting 36-11 to keep the measure in the rules committee. In other words, the aldermen killed the measure many of them claimed to support.
Which is sort of like Senator John Kerry saying he was for funding the war in Iraq before he was against it.
Let's look on the bright side. Eleven aldermen voted in favor of voting on the TIF proposal. Yes, that's progress in Chicago. They were aldermen Fioretti, Waguespack, Joe Moreno, Pat Dowell, Leslie Hairston, Roderick Sawyer, Toni Foulkes, Rick Munoz, Nicholas Sposato, Michele Smith, and John Arena.
Plus, having invoked rule 41 once, the progressives are likely to invoke it again. So at the very least they'll keep other aldermen from signing on to proposals they have no intention of supporting.
Unfortunately, that offers little solace to children whose schools are losing out as the mayor pours tens of millions of dollars into boondoggles like his baby in the South Loop.
As always, it's good to be back home in the Chi.