The ‘State of the City’: Chicago’s $838M Budget Gap and the Path Ahead

A day after Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot marked her 100th day in office, she delivered her first “State of the City” address at Harold Washington Library.

During her speech, Lightfoot said that when she took office in May, the city’s projected budget deficit was “staggeringly large” – $1 billion.

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That number now stands at $838 million, Lightfoot said.

Video: Watch Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s ‘State of the City’ Address

Two principals will guide decision-making on revenue options: not hurting people who can least afford it, and not driving businesses out of Chicago, she said.

As we begin to digest Lightfoot’s address, we’re joined by a panel to help us understand what’s ahead for the city:

• Michael Belsky, executive director of the Center for Municipal Finance at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy and former mayor of Highland Park.

• Carol Spain, a director at S&P Global Ratings in the U.S. public finance area. She sits on the boards of the Government Finance Research Center and the Chicago Municipal Analysts Society.

• Sylvia Puente, executive director of the Latino Policy Forum, an advocacy group that encourages Latino involvement in public decision-making.

• Alden Loury, senior editor of the race, class and communities desk at WBEZ.

A mandate for change

Lightfoot beat Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle in April’s runoff election  with 74% of the vote – carrying all of Chicago’s 50 wards – and a resounding mandate for change. Lightfoot was inaugurated on May 20 and is the first black woman and first openly gay person to be mayor of Chicago.

In 2019, Chicago’s budget was $10.6 billion. Her office budget address is slated for October. On Thursday, Lightfoot said her office would release a budget forecast.

Part of the massive deficit is the city’s persistent pension problems and a looming state-mandated increase to the pension payments. The city has four pension funds and the unfunded pension liability increased in 2018 from $28 billion to $30 billion across all four funds.

Lightfoot could refinance some of the city’s existing debt but that would require state lawmakers’ approval. Critics says it would amount to kicking the can down the road and it risks the city’s credit rating. The majority of the credit agencies have Chicago bonds rated just one step above junk status.

The mayor is looking for new revenue streams to help with the budget hole, including recreational marijuana, which will be legal starting Jan. 1. Revenues from a Chicago casino may be dead on arrival as gaming companies saying that taxes are too high to justify the expense of building a casino in the city.

A ‘State of the City’ preview

On Wednesday, Lightfoot gave aldermen a preview of her speech and listened to their suggestions. The mayor will hear from residents in September when she hosts a series of town hall meetings on fixing the city’s budget woes. Her administration has also posted a survey which will capture Chicagoans’ opinions about various spending areas the city should prioritize.

Town hall meetings will be livestreamed and held at the following locations:

• 6-8 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 4 at the Copernicus Center, 5216 W. Lawrence Ave.

• 9-11 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 14 at Roberto Clemente High School, 1147 N. Western Ave.

• 6-8 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 19 at Southeast United Methodist Youth and Community Center (The Zone), 11731 S Ave.

• 6-8 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 25 at Lindblom Math and Science Academy, 6130 S. Wolcott Ave.

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