Mayor Rahm Emanuel held a press conference on water quality last week—and then proceeded to claim he’s balanced the city budget.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel held a press conference on water quality last week—and then proceeded to claim he’s balanced the city budget. Credit: Michael Schmidt/Sun-Times

The main thing you need to know about Mayor Emanuel’s recent comments on marijuana and the city budget is that most if not everything he said was false.

Not that this makes his comments last week any less entertaining or enlightening—quite the contrary. At the very least, the mayor staged a textbook photo op that should be studied in marketing classes for years.

Let’s start with the lovely lakefront setting, chosen because the mayor and other officials had called a press conference to talk about water quality.

And then he took the opportunity to talk about something else: the suggestion by his potential opponent Karen Lewis that it’s time to legalize and tax marijuana—as we currently do with cigarettes, liquor, gambling, and other so-called sins.

To demonstrate his resolve, our chief executive looked directly into the camera and—as if he’d been up all night rehearsing his lines—sternly said: “I experimented with marijuana a time or two, and I didn’t like it. I didn’t inhale and never tried it again.”

Wait, wrong politician—though it’s about as believable a claim.

What Mayor Emanuel actually said was: “I’ve balanced the budget three years in a row by holding the line on property, sales, and gas taxes. . . . I don’t think the way to balance the budget is to promote smoking of marijuana. . . . You have to make the tough decisions and show the leadership to do the real things that are necessary to balance the budget.”

Before I get into this, I have to say that the funniest part of the scene was the stony faces of the men and women standing near the mayor. Remember: they’d gathered to talk about water purification, only to find themselves used as backdrops for Mayor Rahm’s crusade against the evil weed.

Just so you know, the mayor has most definitely not balanced the budget. No mayor does and no mayor will.

As I’ve discussed before, budgets are annual projections, made in the fall, in which the mayor anticipates how much money he expects to bring in and how much he plans to spend in the coming year.

Since it’s only a projection, the mayor is free to forecast glorious swells of revenue as well as bold savings that will enable him to pay for things like cops, trash collection, and paved streets while balancing the books.

Then, as the year unwinds, the mayor invariably discovers that—oops!—he underestimated expenses and overestimated revenues, or a combination of both, and now we’re hundreds of millions in the red. Sorry, man.

And how does he get out of the jam? He borrows lots of money.

If you recall, last year Mayor Emanuel “balanced” the budget in part by forecasting more than $100 million in “economic growth and revenue enhancement” and projecting roughly $66 million in savings from things like “consolidating leases.”

Obviously, those enhancements and savings didn’t work out so well, because in February the mayor asked the City Council to sign off on borrowing about $1 billion more.

Then he sent Aldermen Will Burns and Joe Moore to explain it all on Chicago Tonight. And we got to watch Joe yell at Alderman Scott Waguespack, a mayoral critic. So at least it was entertaining.

Just last month mayoral aides said he’d probably borrow at least $28 million more to help pay for retroactive police and fire raises.

On the other hand, the mayor says he’s planning to balance next year’s budget with the help of roughly $27 million in cuts from the health care benefits of retired city workers. That’s called a generous forecast of savings.

Of course, the retirees will probably sue. Should they prevail, the $27 million in savings will have evaporated, and more borrowing will probably ensue.

There are other gimmicks used to help balance budgets, such as the sleight of hand that Mayor Emanuel’s school board appointees pulled last month when they “balanced” their budget by adding two months to the fiscal year. That means they’ll be using next year’s taxes to pay this year’s bills.

That’s pretty clever. As far as I know, not even Mayor Daley tried that one.

Finally, do not believe the mayor when he says he held the line on taxes. If you recall, his first budget more than doubled our water and sewer taxes.

And he’s hiked fines and fees each year. He “balanced” last year’s budget with about $120 million in fines from red-light cameras—which we have to pay, even if he doesn’t.

He also jacked up the fee on impounded vehicles and slapped another 75 cents a pack on cigarettes. As every smoker knows, the city remains dependent on the addiction.

And let’s not forget that in each of the last two years the Chicago Public Schools jacked up the property tax to the maximum level allowed by law. The only way the mayor can claim to have held the line on property taxes is by pretending he has nothing to do with the tax hikes passed by his appointees on the school board.

For the record, I almost excuse the mayor for his budget games. These are tricks Emanuel learned from Daley, who learned them from his father. Just as whoever comes next will undoubtedly learn them from Emanuel.

As the Bible says: “And so one mayoral budget gimmick begat another. . . . ” Or something like that.

However, I do blame the mayor for wasting money on stupid stuff like his plan for an arena and hotel complex in the South Loop, which will probably cost upwards of $1 billion in property taxes and hotel taxes.

If the mayor wants to maintain basic services that we want and pay for silly things that he wants, he needs to find new streams of revenue—like a marijuana tax.

Alas, on top of everything else, Rahm’s never been a cutting-edge guy on social issues. As a White House aide to Presidents Clinton and Obama he was against immigration reform, gun control, and same-sex marriage. Now he’s pretending he has a moral objection to smoking marijuana.

He was wrong then, and he’s wrong now.