Last month president-elect Barack Obama vowed to end the old system of awarding federal goodies to friends.
But I’m not sure the call for productive and prudent public spending applies to the expensive wish lists of his hometown the same way it does to those of, say, the Detroit auto industry.
With modern capitalism crashing around our ears, the city is moving forward, full speed ahead, with its plans to stage the 2016 Olympics. Mayor Daley and his Olympic planners were just in Istanbul , wooing members of the International Olympic Committee. Among the highlights of their trip was the presentation of a videotaped pitch from Obama, made at their request, telling Olympics organizers that he’d be proud to see the games in his hometown. In January the city will submit its official bid to the IOC, and next October the IOC will choose Madrid, Rio de Janeiro, Tokyo, or—gulp—Chicago to host the 2016 games.
So far the prospect of hosting the Olympics hasn’t inspired widespread opposition in this city. Daley contends this is because Chicagoans are 100 percent behind the games. I, on the other hand, have long suspected that most Chicagoans simply aren’t paying much attention—it’s been hard enough to keep track of the presidential race and the economic meltdown without looking eight years down the road.
Furthermore, Daley has done a masterful job—and you really have to give him credit for this one—of shielding the public from any specific details of his Olympics plans: almost no one knows enough about them to decide whether the games would be a boon or a boondoggle.
When colleagues in the media ask me why I don’t join the Tribune and Sun-Times in cheering on Daley’s Olympic crusade, I always flip it around: With so many fundamental questions about the cost still unasked, must less answered, how in the world can anyone responsibly support it?
In other words: Just how much will these games cost and who will pay?
Initially, if you recall, Mayor Daley swore up and down that the Olympics wouldn’t cost the public a dime. Then, in March 2007, just a couple weeks after Daley was reelected to another four-year term, the U.S. Olympic Committee said it wouldn’t select Chicago as the country’s official nominee unless the city—oh, how did they phrase it?—put some “skin in the game.” Inside of a week, without anything remotely resembling a legitimate debate, Daley had the City Council earmark up to $500 million in public funding to back the games.
Think of it as an insurance plan, Daley said, meaning the $500 million would only be spent if private financing sources couldn’t raise the money to cover all the costs. He argued that the billions it will cost to construct at least four 15,000-seat arenas (for field hockey, tennis, swimming, and equestrian events), a 75,000-seat track-and-field stadium in Washington Park, and 15,000 units of housing for the Olympic village can be raised from private investors—none of whom he has ever named.
I know it’s hard to disagree with the mayor, but I can’t imagine anyone putting up that kind of money while we’re in the middle of the biggest financial meltdown since the Great Depression and the government’s propping up banks and insurance industries to the tune of trillions of dollars. But let’s imagine that the current crisis passes and in the next year or so billionaires everywhere are looking for places to park their cash. Why would any of them have faith in Chicago’s ability to build the venues on time and budget?
Keep in mind that the infrastructure costs for the 2012 Olympics in London, originally budgeted at about $3.6 billion, have already topped $14 billion and are still growing. Daley insists that Chicago will be spared the cost of buying property—a huge expense for London—because we’d build on public parks, which, of course, the city already owns.
OK, that might save us a billion here and a billion there on the expensive process of kicking people off their land. But the cost of raw construction materials is going up, not down. Moreover, you have to factor in the general waste and inefficiency on public projects around here. The Brown Line, Millennium Park, Soldier Field, the O’Hare expansion, Block 37, and the Chicago River walkway—just to name a few—have all come in over budget. This fall, just a few weeks after the city announced an $85 million plan to buy and demolish Michael Reese Hospital, turning the site into the Olympic village, it had to back off from the deal—the estimated cost of cleaning toxins from the site had already driven up the anticipated price tag by millions of dollars. Now, according to Fourth Ward alderman Toni Preckwinkle, the city’s renegotiating with the property’s owners.
I’ve long suspected that Daley would pay most of these bills with the property taxes he’s been hoarding in the tax increment financing accounts, as well as the millions he stashed after selling off assets like downtown parking garages, the Skyway, and Midway Airport. But given the gloom and doom budget talk coming out of City Hall these days, I think even the mayor realizes there’s a limit to how much property taxes will give him to spend.
And that’s where Obama comes in. In his taped speech to the IOC, Obama stopped short of promising federal money for the games. But I’ve got a hunch that Daley’s hoping Obama will turn on the federal tap in much the same way President Bush helped pay for the never-ending O’Hare expansion.
Well, here’s a word of warning: Obama does so at his own risk. Remember, he didn’t ride to office on a platform promising to reward his friends and political cronies with handouts and subsidies. In fact, it was just the opposite. In his November 22 radio address, Obama vowed to “come up with an economic recovery plan that will mean 2.5 million more jobs by January of 2011.” He promised, “It will be a two-year, nationwide effort to jump-start job creation in America and lay the foundation for a strong and growing economy. We’ll put people back to work rebuilding our crumbling roads and bridges, modernizing schools that are failing our children, and building wind farms and solar panels, fuel-efficient cars and the alternative energy technologies that can free us from dependence on foreign oil and keep our economy competitive in the years ahead.”
These steps, Obama added, will “represent an early down-payment on the type of reform my government will bring to Washington—a government that spends wisely, focuses on what works, and puts the public interest ahead of the same special interests that have come to dominate our politics.”
I suppose he could argue that funding Chicago’s Olympics would be part of the overall effort to stimulate the economy. But I don’t know how much long-term stimulation the games will provide. Sure, building all those venues would be a boon for the construction trade. And there would undoubtedly be benefits for restaurants, hotels, retailers, and taxi drivers if the city were flooded with tourists coming to see the Olympics. But once the games are over and the tourists have gone home, what would we have? The games don’t promise a legacy of high-paying jobs that residents in economically hard-hit neighborhoods desperately need.
In fact, it appears to me that creating jobs is far less important than doing whatever it takes to make mayoral dreams come true—cost-benefit analysis be damned. In this regard Daley’s strategy to use the Olympics for economic development is similar to his plan for the now-abandoned underground train station at Block 37, which amounts to spending millions and millions of dollars for a big hole in the ground.
I can understand why Obama and congressional leaders have been reluctant to bail out the auto industry, given its lackluster efforts to develop more fuel-efficient cars. But I’m wondering how people in Michigan—whose economy is in shambles—would react if Obama opposed aid for the dying auto industry while giving Daley billions to built temporary arenas in his parks.
Perhaps it’s time for Obama to ask the mayor just how much he plans to spend on the games. If the mayor gives him a straight answer, maybe Obama will be nice enough to share it with his old friends, neighbors, and constituents. After all, we’re the saps who will probably end up footing most of the bill.
You Can’t Blame Blago for This One
A few weeks back, I ruled out the prospect of ever running for office—despite what I’ll call a clear and consistent mandate from at least one vocal segment of the voting public—on the grounds that I could never figure out the election code.
Here’s proof. Last week I wrote that the forthcoming vacancy in the Fifth Congressional District—to be created when Rahm Emanuel steps down to work as Obama’s chief of staff—will be filled by a winner-take-all special election. Not so, wrote in Phil Huckelberry, chair of the Illinois Green Party. He said it would require a party primary.
It turns out that we probably will have a primary, though whether it’s required by law is a bit murky. “It’s not really clear, like a lot of election law,” says Dan White, a spokesman for the Illinois State Board of Elections. “It doesn’t say specifically that there has to be a primary. The law only says that there has to be a special election. There are those who argue that there should not be a primary. But our legal people think a primary is implied.”
According to White, sometime after Emanuel resigns, Governor Rod Blagojevich will probably call for two elections: a primary and a general. I say probably because there’s always a chance that Blagojevich will say the hell with it and call for just one special election. That would obviously cost taxpayers less money, though it would essentially guarantee that no Republican or Green could win.
It’s hard to imagine Blagojevich making that kind of move, but under our system, it’s possible. In any event, I apologize for creating even more confusion.v
Ben Joravsky is interviewed about this and other columns on the Mr. Radio podcast, mrradio.org/theworks. And for more on politics, see our blog Clout City.