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If Mayor Lightfoot raises taxes pronto, is she breaking a promise?

Mayor Lori Lightfoot said during the campaign that she'd tackle city expenses before asking taxpayers for more revenue.

Back when Lori Lightfoot was a candidate for mayor, lo several months ago, she decried the Chicago tradition of treating taxpayers “like an ATM machine.” If elected, she said, she wouldn’t chase after residents with a giant, empty moneybag. First, she’d cut costs and seek efficiencies in City Hall operations.

Here’s what Lightfoot told the Tribune in her candidate questionnaire:



In order to build the public case for additional revenue, the city must demonstrate to taxpayers that it takes seriously its obligation as a responsible fiscal steward of the public’s hard-earned tax dollars. This must start with making city government run as efficiently as possible. The next mayor must look into structural reforms that can result in meaningful cost-savings without breaking our contractual obligations to workers.


It’s less than a month into Lightfoot’s tenure as mayor and, well, you can sense what’s coming, can’t you? Lightfoot on Wednesday broke the news that all her hard-fought efforts to trim the budget, rethink delivery of government services and otherwise demonstrate responsible stewardship just won’t be enough to forestall a visit to the taxpayer ATM.

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“There’s no question,” Lightfoot said in reference to proposing a 2020 city budget, “we’re going to have to come to the taxpayers and ask for additional revenue. What that ask is, I think remains an open question because we’re still trying to get our arms around how big is the deficit for next year and what can we do to winnow it down. But I think we’ve got to demonstrate to taxpayers in the city that we are taking a different approach to running city government much more efficiently.”

We’re not playing “gotcha” with Lightfoot. Chicago government finances are in horrendous shape. However, we are a bit surprised at Lightfoot’s stopwatch approach to measuring improved governance. Chicagoans might have assumed that since Lightfoot said she wanted to demonstrate fiscal responsibility to make the case for more revenue, she would at least initiate ambitious cost-cutting, reinvention of service delivery and other innovations before saying she needs to raise taxes or fees.

Lightfoot has a handy response: Chicago’s fiscal hole is deeper than she’d been led to believe. The 2020 budget hole was expected to be $528 million, including ramped up, required contributions to police and fire pension funds, but City Hall said in mid-May that the shortfall would be more than $700 million. Then Lightfoot warned that the budget deficit is actually “worse” than that. “I’m not sure why they choose to put that number out because it’s not accurate,” she said.

A bit of skepticism is in order. It’s an old trick of newly elected politicians to express shock at how much worse the situation is than they anticipated. Just blame the predecessor, which gives the newcomer cover when he or she arrives to save the day.

The mayor hasn’t yet provided a 2020 budget vision for closing the deficit, whatever the figure may be. So we don’t know the extent of any increase in taxes and fees she’ll propose, or how she’d otherwise close the gap. But for Lightfoot to fulfill her promise to voters, she’ll need to quickly identify cost reductions and other verifiable improvements to the business of running Chicago.

Lightfoot has a difficult time ahead. She also has an obligation to improve Chicago’s shaky financing. If the mayor pursues cost savings and structural reforms that contribute meaningfully to a balanced budget, she’ll likely persuade Chicagoans that tax and fee increases are necessary. Otherwise, she’ll be seen as one more politician making a visit to the taxpayer ATM.