Last month state rep Barbara Flynn Currie came to the City Council to let Mayor Rahm Emanuel know what was what with his request for more state aid for his burgeoning teacher pension problems.
Since she’s one of house speaker Michael Madigan’s chief allies, Currie’s words packed special meaning.
Her message to the mayor—which might as well have come from the speaker himself—was that you’re not going to get the money you’re looking for, so stop asking for it and get your business in order.
For starters, she said, it’s time to stop diverting so many property tax dollars to the tax increment financing program. Instead, the money should be spent on the schools. As Currie put it in her July 10 testimony to the council’s education committee: “Many wonder whether Chicago is in fact over-TIFed, with negative consequences for school budgets.”
Well, last week the mayor let Madigan know just what he thought of the message Currie delivered. Emanuel unveiled a plan to extend and expand the Midwest TIF district, which will end up siphoning off tens of millions of property tax dollars, none of it guaranteed to help the schools.
Then the mayor had his trusted sidekick Forrest Claypool, the new Chicago Public Schools CEO, write an essay in which he took an indirect swipe or two at speaker Madigan.
“The simple and direct path too often leads to nowhere in Springfield,” Claypool wrote in the July 31 Tribune.
Ballsy move by the mayor to go after the state’s most powerful politician. I haven’t seen such a tart response to a political message since Lynyrd Skynyrd penned “Sweet Home Alabama” in reaction to Neil Young’s “Southern Man.”
Not that Mayor Rahm’s a crypto confederate or anything.
Also, it’s Claypool’s name on the essay, not Emanuel’s, and the piece doesn’t directly name Madigan, so maybe the mayor’s not so ballsy after all.
OK, let’s dissect what’s happened here, starting with the mayor’s proposal to “solve” the problem of the $600 million or so owed to the Chicago teachers’ pension fund.
The mayor has two proposals to deal with this obligation, which he artfully calls Plan A and Plan B.
He’s like Shakespeare, this mayor!
“Emanuel’s ‘Plan A’ creates a singular, uniform pension system across Illinois for teachers and taxpayers,” Claypool wrote. “It would treat every school district’s teachers, students and taxpayers the same.”
The problem with this plan is that the state already owes hundreds of millions of dollars to its own teachers’ pension system and everyone is pretty much clueless as to what to do about it.
So basically Mayor Rahm is proposing to solve his problem by giving it to someone else—all at great risk to the pension futures of Chicago teachers. That explains why the Chicago Teachers Union, speaker Madigan, and officials from municipalities throughout the state oppose it.
I mean, if the state can’t make good on existing obligations, what makes the mayor think it’s a solution to add to them?
My guess is that he doesn’t give a damn if the Chicago teachers’ pension goes under, so long as he’s not responsible for cleaning up the mess.
In his own snarky way, Claypool acknowledges that Plan A has little chance of passage. “Plan A has the benefit of being simple,” wrote Claypool. “But in Springfield, where legislators can’t even agree on a budget, it may be too much to expect.”
Take that, Speaker Madigan!
So Claypool moves on to Plan B, in which he proposes that the state pick up more of the Chicago’s pension costs while making teachers pay a greater contribution.
That amounts to a pay cut of about 7 percent for teachers. So you can imagine what teachers think about that.
Both Plan A and Plan B were on the table when Currie came to the City Council last month. And she rejected them, basically on the grounds that the state can’t afford either one.
That’s why she urged the city to deal with its school funding debt by cutting back on TIF districts and increasing property taxes for schools.
All of which brings us to the mayor’s plan to grow the Midwest TIF district, unveiled on July 28 at a meeting on the west side. Emanuel is proposing to expand the boundaries of the district and to extend its lifetime for another ten years, until 2034.
He hasn’t detailed how he intends to spend the TIF money or how many millions of dollars it’s expected to add to the Midwest TIF account. Currently the district generates about $13 million a year.
But I can tell you this: none of this money will help solve the pressing problem of funding our schools and wiping out the debt. To allow the Midwest TIF district to collect more money for longer, the mayor is essentially raising property taxes citywide—without guaranteeing that any of the money goes to the schools.
So in effect he’s adding to our tax burden without solving our most immediate funding problems.
The only bright spot here is that the Midwest TIF district includes some low-income communities that need economic development. So at least Mayor Emanuel won’t be squandering the money on rich areas for a change.
Basically, he’s taking a page from Mayor Daley’s book: he’s blaming Springfield for what’s wrong while demanding that it give him whatever he wants—no questions asked.
As we all know, that’s the formula that got us into this mess. v