Welcome to the 2021 Budget Issue (#19) of the Red Star Bulletin!
The aim of this bulletin is to bring Chicago Democratic Socialists of America members a regular round-up of important legislation, committee meetings, and other updates from City Hall, as well as analysis of what this means for our organizing as socialists.
Make no mistake: the City Council is not friendly terrain for us. We must first and foremost continue to build power in the places it derives from–our workplaces, our neighborhoods, and the streets. But we hope to give CDSA members information they need to assess the electoral project we’re embarking on, and to continue building it into a powerful vehicle for working-class politics in our city.
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An Immoral Document: the Journey to Chicago’s 2021 Budget
The municipal budget demonstrates a city’s priorities; it shows what the government of that city cares about. This is why budgets are referred to as “moral documents.”
If you are left feeling mystified by the news coverage of profanity-laden threats, revenue shortfalls, new revenue proposals, and backroom wheeling and dealing about Chicago’s “moral document” this year, that is by design. There are many reasons the ruling class wants to obfuscate the process as much as possible. This article is to help you understand some of the basics.
The process for setting Chicago’s annual budget process is usually a six-month endeavor, stretching from July, if not a little earlier, to December. City departments start by working with the Office of Budget and Management to review the previous year’s expenditures and project needs for the next year. Generally, by September, the mayor shares a budget forecast with the City Council and the public and formally proposes a budget to the City Council in October. Hearings are held on different parts of the budget; at least one hearing must be public. By law, the city must pass a budget by December 31.
In past years, the budget process has been fairly cut-and-dry, with alders rubber-stamping the mayor’s budget. But, of course, these are extraordinary times. The Movement for Black Lives sparked support for defunding police and radically rethinking public safety; the power dynamics in City Hall have changed with a larger socialist and progressive cadre of alders; this mayor has employed a particular set of strongarm tactics; and, of course, a deadly pandemic has devastated Chicago’s revenue streams. Considering this, it is no surprise the passage of Chicago’s 2021 budget was anything but smooth.
By August, it was clear that the 2021 budget would need to account for lost revenue tied to COVID-19—about $1.2 billion. The question was how the mayor would propose recouping that revenue.
We know the answer to that question now: Chicago’s 2021 budget makes it clear Mayor Lori Lightfoot does not care about working-class Chicagoans struggling to survive, she does not care about the city’s long-present structural racial inequities, and she is far more interested in protecting the interests of capital than improving conditions for the working class.
Lightfoot stuck with neoliberal tradition and proposed balancing the 2021 budget by taking a modest amount from the city’s reserves, refinancing a sizable chunk of debt, redirecting rideshare fees previously used to subsidize the CTA, increasing the city’s fuel tax, not filling vacant positions across all city departments, increasing the amount taken from the TIF (Tax Incremental Financing) surplus funds, furloughing non-union employees, and increasing property taxes by $94 million.
These moves can hardly be considered solutions. They kick the can down the road, providing temporary financial relief at the cost of a near-guarantee that citizens will have to pay—literally and figuratively—for these choices in the next few years, potentially after Lightfoot has left office.
These measures are particularly frustrating when one considers the alternatives available to the city.
One such alternative was introduced by Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th) and dubbed the “Amazon Tax.” The measure would have imposed a $16 per month/per employee head tax on logistics firms that employ more than 50 people. Major companies targeted for this tax were Amazon, Target, and Walmart. The tax would have raised an estimated $6 million from companies who could well afford to pay it.
Another budget alternative would have reallocated funds from the police and used them to send mental health professionals on 911 calls for help. Ald. Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez (33rd) authored this measure, which was similar to an ordinance she introduced in September.
But in mid-November, Lightfoot’s allies in the Council sent these measures to languish in legislative purgatory while Lightfoot’s neoliberal proposals got the green light.
Some progressives have commented that the new budget starts the job of defunding the police because the police budget in 2021 will be $80 million less than last year. Socialists, do not rejoice! This reduction largely comes from not filling vacant positions.
Amid the unprecedented calls to defund the police, it is infuriating to see the mayor reject yet another opportunity to take any meaningful step against police brutality and for the Movement for Black Lives—especially given that just a further 6 percent decrease from 2020 police funding would more than cover the $94 million to be raised through a property tax increase.
Lightfoot has made her opposition to the defund movement clear. Despite this, the movement remains popular. Beyond the city-sponsored budget survey, a randomized poll shows that Chicagoans want the police to spend more time in their neighborhoods but that a majority has a negative opinion of the Chicago Police Department (CPD). Additionally, nearly half of Chicagoans would not be deterred by an alder running on a platform of disbanding the CPD.
In a city wracked by violence, public safety is a concern for Chicagoans. But the potential support for alternatives to policing is clear. Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) said it best: “If you really want to reimagine policing and move towards alternatives for policing, you have to do a lot more than just eliminate some vacant positions.”
With all the controversy stoked by her proposal, Lightfoot was still gathering votes in mid-November. Earlier in the month, she threatened members of the Black Caucus, saying, “Don’t come to me for shit for the next three years” if they did not vote yes on the budget. She later sweetened the pot by offering an additional $10 million for violence interruption initiatives.
Lightfoot also touted measures to increase youth programming funding by $1.7 million, affordable housing support by $2 million, and economic recovery efforts by $7 million. But when you consider the size of the budget—nearly $13 billion—an additional $2 million for something as critical as affordable housing would be laughable if it didn’t make you cry.
After whipping enough votes, Lightfoot moved to have the Council vote on the budget on Tuesday, November 24.
Five of the CDSA-member alders gave testimony about why they were voting against Lightfoot’s proposed budget. None were more compelling than Ald. Jeanette Taylor’s (20th), who began with the stirring words, “Don’t give me crumbs and tell me it’s cake.”
Ald. Taylor pointed out that while people are quick to talk about “white flight,” we rarely talk about Black flight. Chicago’s Black population has decreased by more than 400,000 over the past 40 years. There is no mystery as to why this is happening. Decades of disinvestment, both public and private, and racist policing are to blame. The 2021 budget does nothing to address these issues.
Ald. Taylor pointed out that working-class Chicagoans are already struggling to make ends meet. As of 2017, nearly 10 percent of city residents lack health insurance, to say nothing of those who are underinsured. Nearly two-thirds of Chicago households are trying to get by on less than 80 percent of the area median income, with nearly one-third at or below 30 percent. Nearly half of Chicago renters are “rent-burdened,” spending a third or more of their income on rent. Nearly 77,000 Chicagoans are experiencing homelessness, the city’s affordable housing stock is decreasing, and food pantry use has doubled in 2020. The 2021 budget does nothing to address these issues either.
Ultimately, the 2021 budget passed by a 28–22 vote. This is the closest budget vote in Chicago since Harold Washington battled a racist battalion of alders. It is simultaneously encouraging and disappointing that the budget passed by the margin it did—encouraging because it seems like the mayor’s governing coalition is fraying, disappointing because we did not win the battle.
Many alders who voted no on last year’s budget voted yes this year. Importantly, a number of no votes this year were actually from alders who are not friends to the socialist cause—for example, some voted no to protest the measly cuts to the CPD.
Three alders who voted no on the 2020 budget saved Lightfoot’s agenda this time around: Mike Rodriguez (22nd), Andre Vazquez (40th), and Maria Hadden (49th). Had they stuck to no votes, the budget vote would have been a 25–25, sending Lightfoot back to the drawing board.
While five CDSA-member alders voted against Lightfoot’s austerity budget, one, Andre Vasquez, did not. As a consequence of this vote for austerity, and after a long process of engaging him about other conflicts with CDSA’s positions, the chapter’s Executive Committee voted 42–2 to censure Ald. Vasquez and request that he resign his DSA membership. The full censure statement can be found here.
Ald. Vasquez and other progressive alders justified their vote in favor of this budget by claiming that Mayor Lightfoot’s proposal, after the meager concessions she made, was as good as we could get. That is simply not the case. If the alders had stuck together for progressive revenue-raising measures such as the Amazon Tax and deeper cuts in the police budget to redirect funds to social programs, they could have forced the mayor to concede much more.
CDSA will keep up the fight for these and other aims in the new year. We didn’t win the budget we wanted, but radical measures like defunding CPD and “Treatment Not Trauma” were part of the debate for the first time. It won’t be the last time.
This new corner extends from comrades’ work in RSB Issue #12 outlining Mayor Lightfoot’s glaringly unfulfilled (or directly contradicted) campaign promises, the ones which she used to fashion herself as a “progressive.” The Red Star Bulletin will be featuring Lightfoot’s ongoing hypocrisies and deceits here.
In this issue, we want to bring attention to the continual sidestepping of serious COVID-19 precautions Mayor Lightfoot and the Chicago Department of Public Health have been making this year. Infamously, Lightfoot recently shed tears at the mere thought of an on-shift restaurant worker missing work due to Illinois public health policy… but not the thousands of deaths racking up in the city where she is mayor.
In June, the “reopening” agenda was aggressively pushed forward at municipal and state levels by Democratic and Republican legislators. Lightfoot was in lockstep in prioritizing capital accumulation over human life. The city’s Public Health department used nonbinding language of “considering” rolling back restrictions if case rates went up to 200 daily. What happened when those very numbers were surpassed the same week the statement was released? Nothing.
Then in October, the Public Health department mirrored the previous statement, saying that if the case rate surpassed 400 daily, they would, again, “consider” implementing rollbacks. Averaging 400-500 new cases a day occurred within that same week—no response of action from Lightfoot or her administration. The numbers Chicagoans have been suffering through now tower over already alarming rates from July and October. Without surprise, Lightfoot’s administration’s words mean, let alone provide, nothing.
The Red Star Bulletin was conceived by Ramsin Canon and is a project of the Political Education & Policy Committee. This issue was drafted by CDSA members. Special contributions were made by Ali Cassity, Brent Glass, Nick Hussong, Ethan Jantz, Charlotte Kissinger, Alan Maass, and Morgan Madderom. Graphics were contributed by Patrick O’Connell and Jon Lyons. If you would like to contribute to the Red Star Bulletin or have any feedback, email firstname.lastname@example.org.