Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s plan to use $12.5 million in city funds to give away 50,000 prepaid cards that will cover $150 worth of gas as well as 100,000 passes that will cover $50 worth of CTA fares hit a pothole Wednesday.
Skeptical members of the Chicago City Council blasted the proposal as an election-year stunt that would benefit oil companies without offering Chicagoans real relief from the pain at the pump.
“We are literally burning up $12.5 million,” Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd Ward) said, adding that he opposed any plan to subsidize the purchase of oil or gas with taxpayer funds.
The money would be better spent making the CTA safer and cleaner to boost ridership back to pre-pandemic levels, Reilly said.
Funding five round trips on the CTA and two tanks of gas will not “move the needle” for Chicagoans struggling to make ends meet, Reilly said.
The decision by Budget Committee Chair Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd Ward) not to hold a vote on the measure as planned is an indication that it did not have enough votes to advance to the full Chicago City Council, which is next scheduled to meet April 27.
That gives Lightfoot three weeks to find the votes to fuel up her plan, which has changed significantly in the six days since she unveiled it at a City Hall news conference. The ordinance was sent to alderpeople just two hours before the scheduled vote, officials said.
Lightfoot told reporters on Thursday that her original plan to open a lottery for the gas and transit cards to all Chicagoans who earn no more than 140% of the area median income — which is $91,000 for an individual and $140,000 for a family of four — “struck the right balance.”
“When you are paying $6 a gallon for gas as many people are across the city, that hits you,” Lightfoot said. “We’re hoping people that are of means and don’t need the relief are not going to be the ones that apply.”
But the plan presented to alderpeople on Wednesday limits the program to those who earn no more than 100% of the area median income, which is $65,300 for an individual or $93,200 for a family of four.
The proposal would use $5 million for the CTA passes and $7.5 million for the prepaid gas cards.
Chief Financial Officer Jennie Huang Bennett said the change was made in response to feedback from City Council members and an attempt to rethink the program with a greater “equity lens.”
The program will earmark 75,000 of the CTA passes for residents of low-income areas, with neighborhoods with high rates of CTA ridership getting priority, officials said.
That plan brought sharp questions from one of the mayor’s closest allies, Black Caucus Chair Ald. Jason Ervin (28th Ward) who pressed officials on why residents of his West Side ward would not get priority for the gas cards, especially since they have more limited options for public transportation than some North Side wards.
That was one of a number of questions posed by alderpeople that Huang Bennett could not answer during the 90-minute hearing.
Ald. Walter Burnett (27th Ward), another ally of the mayor, said it was “a little bit unfair” that Chicago households are only eligible for one gas card or one CTA pass, regardless of the size of their household.
Burnett was one of several alderpeople who asked Huang Bennett whether the plan was developed in response to philanthropist and businessman Willie Wilson, who staged two high-profile events across the city that gave away $1.2 million in gas. Wilson, who has also run unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate and president, plans to announce Monday whether he will run again for mayor. In 2019, Wilson finished fifth in the mayoral election with 11% of the vote.
Huang Bennett told Burnett she would stay in her lane and only field questions about the program, not the political implications of rising gas prices.
Ald. Carlos Ramirez Rosa (35th Ward) called the proposal a stunt that was designed to help Lightfoot win a second term. Lightfoot has yet to formally announce she will run for reelection, but she is widely expected to run again.
In addition, while Lightfoot told reporters that the program would be funded in part by federal funds designed to help the city of Chicago recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, that is no longer the plan, officials said. Instead, Huang Bennett proposed using unspent funds originally earmarked for the Department of Aging. No programs or services would be scaled back, Comptroller Reshma Soni said.
The plan to offer prepaid gas cards and CTA passes is Lightfoot’s second attempt to respond to the political pressure caused by rising gas prices, which have begun to level off during the past week. The average cost of a gallon of gas is $4.53 in Chicago, according to AAA. A month ago, a gallon of gas cost $4.39. One year ago, a gallon of gas was $3.17.
Lightfoot initially proposed a plan to cut the city’s $0.08 portion of the gas tax by three cents. That plan would have opened an $18 million hole in the fund the city uses for road maintenance — and potentially violated a 2016 amendment to the Illinois constitution that prohibits lawmakers from using transportation funds for any other purpose.
Contact Heather Cherone: @HeatherCherone | (773) 569-1863 | [email protected]