Yesterday the Chicago City Council took another controversial step towards fixing Chicago’s precarious pension crisis. That step will eventually cost homeowners an additional 29 percent in utility taxes over four years, billed as a revenue generator to eat away at the city’s large-scale money debacle.
The tax hike will undoubtedly enrage property owners and force some council members into early retirement. Alderman Ed Burke described the increase as the “alternative that makes the most sense” to save the city’s largest city employee pension. He could have also described it as the least terrible option.
And apart from declaring bankruptcy (a-la Detroit) Chicago has very few options at its disposal. Over the past few years, residents have bared the brunt of those options as the state and local legislature continues to bump tax rates into the stratosphere. It’s not the hand we wanted but it’s the one we’ve been dealt.
But the pension is not the only thing we have to worry about, which brings me to the Safe Roads Amendment; a constitutional alteration that would ensure public funds intended for transportation would actually be used for transportation. The editorial board of the Tribune recently condemned the amendment, saying it was a bunch of bureaucratic nonsense: Essentially, why give constitutionally protected dibs on billions-of-dollars worth in revenue when we have more pressing issues to address?
It’s a fair question. Todd Maisch, president of the Illinois Chamber of Congress thinks it’s shortsighted. In a letter to the editorial board, Maisch pointed out that the amendment was essential to keeping Illinois’s roads safe without the threat of diverting its financial purse in different places. He also noted that for the last 13 years Illinois has moved nearly $7 billion from the state’s Road Fund for other needs.
“This amendment wouldn’t have saved every one of those dollars, “ Maisch wrote, “but it would have helped prevent Illinois from being on pace to have 1 in every 3 miles of roadway, and 1 in 10 bridges, rated in ‘unacceptable’ condition.”
It’s also worth noting that the traffic fatality rate in Illinois is on the rise, set to pass 1,000 for the first time since 2008. That’s a consequence of more miles being driven and more people on the road. The Safe Roads Amendment certainly has its share of problems, but better roads means safer roads, and that shouldn’t be ignored.
According to Maisch, 30 other states have constitutionally-protected transportation funds, so why shouldn’t Illinois join them? His plea may not be convincing, however. With just two months to go until election day, there’s little reason to believe that Illinois taxpayers will be thinking about anything but the pension crisis, if only to find a way to rid themselves of a financial drain that has led to more peripheral problems, more tax increases, and more headaches.
Whatever happens, we know this: After November 8, Illinois will have a fresh controversy to add to its list.