The last time the Chicago City Council challenged a mayor on his budget was in 1985, at the height of Council Wars. Led by the aldermanic Eddies–Vrdolyak and Burke–the majority bloc of opposition aldermen threatened to bring city services to a halt unless Mayor Harold Washington made some last-minute changes to the budget.

Washington did make several accommodations, but many reformers and editorial writers decried the spectacle–which included several unruly meetings–and claimed it threatened the city’s bond rating as well as blighted its reputation.

Now at least one of those reformers has changed his mind.

“When you see how the budget is adopted today–without debate or serious examination–it makes you appreciate Council Wars,” says Dick Simpson, a former independent alderman and now a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “I still don’t like the racial nature of the opposition, but Burke was at least holding Washington accountable for his budget, and I think the city was better served as a result.”

Simpson has written, with four graduate students, “The City Council’s Role in Chicago Budget Making,” a 31-page analysis of council voting patterns on the budget over the last three years. The report concludes that since Washington took control of the City Council in 1986–and particularly now under Mayor Richard M. Daley–the aldermen have abdicated most of their responsibility in regard to the budget. In essence, the city is an autocracy in which the aldermen “remain virtual bystanders”–too dumb, scared, or lazy to challenge the boss.

“Government really only does two things: allocate money and pass laws,” says Simpson. “Everything else is just posturing or show. If you want to affect government, you have to control the laws or the purse strings. And there’s no indication that the city’s aldermen want or know how to do either.”

Daley administration officials dismiss these charges. “The aldermen are involved in the budget–they’re very involved,” says Ed Bedor, Mayor Daley’s chief financial officer. “Just because people don’t stand on their desk and rant and rave doesn’t mean we don’t listen to the aldermen. They suggest changes, and we make changes. Should we be criticized for doing it in a businesslike fashion?”

Both sides agree, however, that the process of setting the budget can be bewildering. The budget document itself is a 400-page text with 200,000 separate items that detail how the city plans to raise and spend roughly $3 billion a year.

“There’s probably no more than five–maybe ten at tops–aldermen who understand the budget,” says Simpson. “Suppose someone says we ought to lower water rates 10 percent. OK, but what line items are you going to cut? Do you cut from police? How about fire? Where’s the money going to come from?

“There have always been a few independents and some machine turks–like Burke–who took the time to master the budget. But most aldermen don’t even try to comprehend it. They’ll fight like hell to see that their ward gets street-sweeping services, or that their favorite precinct captain gets a raise. But they’re not going to work hard to understand the budget. They don’t see the payoff for putting in the time to do that. Better to just give the mayor whatever he wants.”

Today’s situation is a far cry from the early 1950s, when a clique of powerful aldermen–nicknamed the Grey Wolves–controlled the finances. That changed when Richard J. Daley was elected mayor in 1955.

“The first Mayor Daley centralized power,” says Simpson, “and by doing so he took control of the budget.”

During the first Daley’s regime, there were few public hearings on the budget. Each summer, the city’s department heads privately offered their requests to the mayor. The culmination of those meetings was the first draft of the budget, made public in November. The only hearing at which the public was invited to testify was held the day after Thanksgiving.

“Anybody could say whatever they wanted to at that hearing, but very few people showed up,” says Simpson. “That’s a day when people usually have other things to do. Once in a while the Civic Federation or some group like that would come in with a proposal to make a major adjustment to a tax, but generally speaking there was no relation between the testimony and the budget. The mayor didn’t leap up and say, ‘That’s a great idea, let’s change the budget.’ Usually, he wasn’t even there.”

A few independents back then proposed alternative budgets. But the other aldermen generally ignored them. The council usually approved Daley’s budget without major changes long before the December 31 deadline.

Washington instituted some changes to the system, however. He made good on his campaign promise to schedule a series of public hearings on the budget in the summer. And he unveiled his budget in mid-October, allowing more time for debate.

But most important was that Washington was forced to confront a strong opposition faction in the council. The head of the Finance Committee–which reviews the budget–is traditionally a close ally of the mayor. Back in 1983, Washington wanted Alderman Wilson Frost to chair that committee. Instead, the Vrdolyak faction installed Burke, who never wavered in his opposition to Washington.

In his first year as Finance Committee chairman, Burke turned on the political heat by unveiling an alternative budget that promised to cut taxes and increase police and fire services. The debate that followed made television stars out of Burke and Vrdolyak and a cast of heretofore unknown City Hall number crunchers.

At times the debate was unnecessarily nasty, vindictive, and deliberately misleading. Burke’s budget couldn’t possibly deliver on all its promises without creating a deficit. And most aldermen chose up sides solely on the basis of race.

Still, it was an arresting drama that revealed how politics shapes policy and how little absolute truth there is to a budget.

“The budget is based on a series of projections,” says Fifth Ward Alderman Larry Bloom, a longtime student of city finances. “At the start of every year, you estimate or project how much income you think you are going to have from federal and state aid and local taxes.”

Typically, if there’s a mayoral election in February, the mayor and his budget director project a high sales-tax yield and additional property taxes from new downtown development for the coming year. That enables the mayor to take credit for igniting an economic boom–though local politicians generally have very little impact, even on the local economy–and keeping property taxes low.

Washington, however, started his term with a tax hike, hoping to live down its repercussions over the next four years. In his inaugural address, Washington made it clear that the city would need new taxes because of a horrendous budget deficit, which he then blamed on his predecessor, Jane Byrne.

Burke accused Washington of exaggerating the deficit and of wasting money on patronage, and the debate was on.

“A budget is often a political document,” says Simpson. “A mayor’s budget assertions should always be challenged. But he won’t be challenged if the council is not active. We had an active council during Council Wars.”

There was a similar situation, on a smaller scale, in November 1987, when Washington introduced the first budget of his second term. By then, however, Washington controlled enough votes to pass virtually any legislation he wanted, and the opposition faction had been reduced to Larry Bloom .

The process of creating the budget was made a bit more complicated at that time by the fact that Washington had allowed the City Council to create a Budget Committee.

“When Washington took control of the council after the special aldermanic elections of 1986, he was all set to oust Burke as chairman of the Finance Committee,” says Bloom. “But [former 48th Ward alderman] Marion Volini thought that Ed was doing a good job. So Harold decided to create the Budget Committee, which was supposed to oversee the budget process. Finance was put in charge of overseeing all capital projects. The mayor made Tim Evans [the Budget Committee] chairman, and that way Burke got to keep Finance.”

After Washington’s reelection in April 1987, the mayor reorganized the council again, moving Evans to Finance and installing Bloom as chairman of Budget.

“Harold’s last budget called for $82 million in tax hikes,” says Bloom. “I thought we could get by with $40 million. Washington was in the first year of a four-year term. There was euphoria. He was riding a wave. Who knew what would happen two years down the road? His credibility might erode. He was willing to take the heat on the tax hike then so he could coast the rest of the way.

“I understand that. I would probably do the same thing if I was mayor. But I wasn’t mayor. And I didn’t want to support that big a tax hike. I met with Mayor Washington two days before he died, and I told him we were not close on taxes. He was upset, but he didn’t try to oust me as chairman of Budget. He could have. He had the votes. If he said, ‘Hey, this guy is too big for his britches,’ he could have knocked me out. There would have been some political fallout, of course. It would have looked as though he had engineered the move solely because I was offering constructive criticism. But I don’t know how much fallout there would have been.”

Washington died before his budget came to the council floor. Eugene Sawyer replaced him, and general chaos reigned in the council. There was no Vrdolyak to tell the white aldermen what to do, and the black aldermen were divided into competing factions.

All told, according to the Simpson study, there were 18 roll-call votes that year on amendments–essentially challenges to the mayor’s budget. Eleven aldermen supported Sawyer’s position at least 90 percent of the time, and nine voted against Sawyer 90 percent of the time. The other aldermen voted far less consistently.

“There was less polarization with that budget,” says Simpson. “By that I mean fewer aldermen either voted with or against the mayor, as was the case in the past. As a whole, the council displayed more independence. You had aldermen voting with Sawyer sometimes, and against him other times. That’s most unusual in Chicago.”

By the next year, once Sawyer had consolidated his power, things were back to normal. Twenty-one aldermen supported Sawyer’s position every single time, and he won all 54 roll-call votes on amendments (the high number of challenges may have been due to the coming election). The 1989 budget was then debated and approved in December 1988.

From Simpson’s perspective, the council was even more passive during the budget debate of December 1989. Once again, no alderman–or aldermanic faction–introduced an alternative budget. There were 19 roll-call votes on amendments, and Daley won each one. Nineteen aldermen voted with him every time.

“The aldermen did not challenge Daley’s budget,” says Simpson. “They did not offer serious alternatives. We’ve lost the advantages of open debate.”

Bedor claims, however, that the aldermen helped shape the budget before it got to the council floor.

“We held five public meetings this summer on the budget,” says Bedor. “Many people thought that the Daley administration would cut out these meetings, but we expanded them. Mayor Daley went to every one; he listened and he answered questions. A lot of aldermen were at those meetings, and we heard their suggestions.”

Simpson proposes that the council hold more budget hearings–and air all of them on cable television.

“Most aldermen have the intelligence to put together an alternative budget,” says Simpson. “They may be choosing to be ignorant, or it could be they lack the will. It takes a lot of work. And that’s the point. All the council hearings in the world aren’t going to do any good if the aldermen aren’t going to work.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.