The Chicago City Council's Progressive Reform Caucus made an effort Wednesday to bring up for a full vote two pieces of legislation that have been stuck in the Rules Committee for months, but their efforts were thwarted. Progress Illinois was at Wednesday's city council meeting and details how the attempt flatlined.
The Chicago City Council's Progressive Reform Caucus made an effort Wednesday to bring up for a full vote two pieces of legislation that have been stuck in the Rules Committee for months, but their efforts were thwarted.
The caucus and its chief sponsors of the two measures — a Tax Increment Financing (TIF) Surplus Ordinance and a resolution calling for a citywide referendum on an elected Chicago school board — invoked "Rule 41" of the council's orders and procedures to try to discharge the legislation from the Rules Committee, which some people call the place "where good legislation goes to die." Both measures were sent to the Rules Committee immediately after being introduced.
Following more than an hour of heated debate on the topic of TIFs, Chicago City Council members voted 11-36 against bringing the surplus ordinance out from committee for a vote. Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd) introduced the ordinance back in July.
The resolution for an elected school board referendum, introduced by Ald. John Arena (45th) in September, had little discussion and also failed to be discharged from the committee by a 15-32 vote.
"Once again this body failed to act on issues that are of importance to the citizens of Chicago," Arena told reporters after the meeting.
"The Progressive Reform Caucus is not going to stop having conversations about things that are important to our constituents," he continued. "The way of doing business in this city, 40 years of the same old thing, led us into a financial crisis, spending bond money on frivolous costs. That is not what the taxpayers want anymore. Closing schools en masse, no recourse to the decisions that are made, and the leadership of this body says, 'Go on about your business the way you've been doing it.' That is not what we need anymore. We need new thinking."
During Wednesday's debate, Ald. Toni Foulkes (15th) told her fellow council members that the Chicago City Council is a "joke" when it comes to discussing tough topics.
"Anything [the constituents] want to hear, it goes to the Rules [Committee], and it has nothing to do with black or white, Hispanic, it goes there to die," she said. "That has to stop."
The TIF Surplus Ordinance would have required non-committed money in TIF districts that had revenues of more than $1 million in 2012 to be part of a surplus, which would then be sent back to government agencies, including the cash-strapped Chicago Public Schools (CPS) district that made deep school budget cuts this year.
The surplus measure had already garnered support from 32 out of the council's 50 aldermen, enough votes to pass, but a number of those who signed on voted against bringing it up for a full vote.
"Some of you may ask why I am now voting against an ordinance that I co-sponsored, and I would say that I joined other people who wanted to pass this ordinance in order to ... put pressure on you, Mr. Mayor, to declare a tax surplus to mitigate the (Chicago Public Schools) budget cuts," Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) said on the floor.
"You did declare a TIF surplus, and this TIF surplus has resulted in $25 million in additional funding for Chicago Public Schools," she added. "But rather than declare a victory and move on to other issues, the ordinance's chief sponsors have decided to double down and have asked this body to pass this ordinance."
Currently, $1.7 billion is sitting in Chicago's collective TIF district bank accounts, although the city says $1.5 billion is already allocated to various projects. During the city's 2014 budget hearings, the mayor's administration has said the true TIF surplus is about $189 million, Arena said after Wednesday's council meeting. As part of the budgeting process, the mayor has said he would declare about $49 million of that as a surplus, with about $24 million for the school district.
The mayor last Friday also signed an executive order that formally calls for an annual TIF surplus of no less than 25 percent of unencumbered TIF funds from eligible districts.
While some aldermen spoke in favor of a TIF surplus, they also said the proposed ordinance would take too much money away from future economic development projects in their wards.
"I'm all for TIF surplussing for the right reasons, but I don’t see why we need to take the TIF dollars out of communities that need them ... without some of that stop-gap funding that TIF provides, we will never have projects in communities of color," Rules Committee Chair Michelle Harris (8th) said on the council floor. "Anybody who wants to give all that money away, sign on the dotted line and give it all away."
Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) also spoke passionately about the TIF districts in his wards and the projects they have helped to create, including new school buildings.
"I don't want any more money to come out of my ward ... I want that money to be spent in my ward," Burnett said. "Mayor, I think the 27th Ward has done enough. One-third of the [TIF] surplus comes from the 27th Ward. I think that's enough, and I need to continue to work on the things in the 27th Ward."
Amisha Patel, executive director of the Grassroots Collaborative, told Progress Illinois after the meeting that many of the aldermen who complained about giving away their TIF funds did not question Emanuel's recent executive order to declare annual surpluses.
Instead, the talks on the floor turned into "let’s blame other council people who are trying to have this conversation about resources and revenue," she said.
A number of aldermen who voted against discharging the ordinance raised concerns that invoking Rule 41 was not the appropriate process for which to have a conversation on the matter.
"It is my hope that those of you who want to bring issues to the floor work towards it, talk to your colleagues, visit the chairman find out how you can get things done," said Ald. Patrick O'Connor (40th). "This isn't about shying away from tough votes. We take tough votes. But we take them at a time when it is appropriate not at a time when people want to put that tough vote on the table, not to accomplish a goal, not because they have any hope or expectation to win, but because they want to embarrass somebody. That's a damn shame."
After the meeting, Arena said the Progressive Reform Caucus had no intention of embarrassing anyone, pointing out that a good number of aldermen already signed on to the TIF measure.
"If you sign on to an ordinance, then you're putting your signature to something, which means that you've considered it and that's the beginning of the process. The next step is to put it through committee, to negotiate with the administration, to come out with a better ordinance," Arena said after the meeting. "If we're denied that process, then this body is broken. This isn't council wars, this is following the rules of our organization."
Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th), who co-sponsored the TIF measure and is reportedly still on the Progressive Reform Caucus and the rival Paul Douglas Alliance, also echoed O'Connor, saying that those pushing for the ordinance should have worked harder to engage other council members on the matter before pulling a procedural move.
"There are some in this chamber who think that their signature is more important than everyone else's signature who signed on to it, or that somehow you care more about your schools ... than we care about our schools ... We all care deeply about our schools," Pawar said. "You've turned your ordinance into a pledge in the same way that Grover Norquist forced his tea partiers to sign a pledge and then holds it over their head and says, 'You need to vote this way' regardless of what's actually happening."
Pawar went on to say that the ordinance's main sponsors are "stripping" aldermen of their ability to "participate in creating meaningful and important legislation" and instead are "asking me to sign away and give my vote to you under pressure."
"Simply put, you are throwing my signature back into my face," the alderman stressed.
But Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) fired back at some of those arguments, saying that if the council was following the correct process, the measure would have been allowed to see the light of day.
"The process should have allowed for a hearing," Hairston said. "I've heard us talk [today] about respect for our colleagues. It's not respectful when you don't call it."
Ald. Will Burns (4th), who co-sponsored the ordinance but voted against moving it from committee, said the measure was "poorly drafted" and "vague," among other concerns.
He added that "raiding the city's TIF funds is not the solution to Chicago Public Schools' continuing financial crisis."
"The state has a primary responsibility for financing the system of public education. State leaders have failed to properly invest in Chicago Public Schools," he said, adding that Illinois ranks last when it comes to state education funding.
Emanuel later stressed that out of the TIF funds the city collects "close to 75 percent of the dollars go to schools, parks, libraries, streetscape, mass transit.” He also noted that it's going to take a lot more than TIF surplus money to get education funding to where all Chicagoans want it to be. Federal and state money for education has dwindled to some of the lowest levels in recent years, he said, and the growing city and state pension demands are "crowding out all the other investments."
But Patel took a jab at that argument, saying "We can’t just point our fingers to the state and say, 'The state has to fix it.'"
"There are solutions at every level of government including the city, and including enacting real TIF reform, to make sure that resources actually do go back to schools," she said.