Rahm Emanuel

How Chuy Garcia Missed a Golden Opportunity

Garcia has failed to capitalize on Mayor Rahm Emanuel's shaky financial track record

Both candidates for mayor of Chicago have now announced their eagerly anticipated plans to address the city’s budget woes, and in just two days they will face off in their first head-to-head. But still, we appear no closer to getting real, complete and straight talk on finances from either candidate.

Both Rahm Emanuel and Jesus “Chuy” Garcia suggested some good -- though vague -- ideas for how the city should begin trimming the tiniest bits of fat from the edges by improving efficiency in order to save cash. However, neither one presented many new ideas, nor anything resembling a complete and balanced budget plan.

Mayor Emanuel, of course, has already claimed balanced budget victory in the past, but only through the most elastic definitions of the phrase because he had to borrow millions more to pay for certain entitlements.

That's where Garcia should have stepped in and taken the reins.

But up until Friday, Garcia avoided almost all detailed discussion of the Chicago budget. During his announcement, Garcia still flatly refused to reveal or discuss any ideas for how to generate new revenue.

Either Garcia doesn’t yet have any revenue-generating ideas, or he doesn’t think that voters would like them very much.

Make no mistake about it, new revenue is necessary to bridge Chicago’s $300 million budget shortfall and to fund $20 billion in promised pension payments. And some portion of that new revenue will have to come from the place government revenue almost always comes from – taxes.

Mayor Emanuel’s new fiscal outline didn’t lay out any specifics on new revenue sources either, other than to say that public employee and taxpayer contributions should be increased as a part of so-called pension reform and that new ideas will be explored. The mayor continued to insist that property tax raises are an option of “last resort.”

Of course, Carrie Austin, Emanuel ally, 34th ward alderman and chair of the city council’s Budget Committee, sang a much different tune not one week ago when she warned of an inevitable property tax increase.

“I believe we can truly say that It will happen, but (the only question is) how much?” she told the Chicago Tribune.

Ald. Austin also talked about biting the bullet and being honest with voters, despite the current election season. Emanuel has not done a great job of that over his first term, and neither he nor Garcia seem willing to talk with Chicagoans like big boys and present full budget proposals, tax-increase warts and all.

Mayor Emanuel touts his record of never calling for property tax increases over the course of the four budgets he’s submitted to the City Council in the past four years. However, taxes have increased a great deal under Emanuel, even as crucial city services have taken a hit.

Whether or not Chicago homeowners have had to spend more on their property tax line item, increased fees and taxes in other areas mean that the average Chicago household will pay approximately $481 more to the city in 2015 than they did in 2011 when Emanuel was first elected, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Where is all this money coming from? 

Emanuel-run CPS has raised property taxes the maximum allowable amount without voter approval every year for the last four years.

Phone and cable TV taxes have risen.

Automotive city sticker fees have gone up.

Water and sewer fees have also increased.

With all raised taxes and fees taken into account, the typical city homeowner will now pay 60 percent more in city taxes.

That record of Emanuel’s gave Garcia the opportunity to call the mayor out on his double-speak and then put forth a more complete and honest budget plan. Instead, Garcia doubled down on his previous cautiousness and told reporters on Friday that he would not discuss revenue generating plans (i.e. new taxes) until after the election.

That convenient position doesn’t risk scaring voters, but it may also place Garcia in a space too close to Emanuel to separate himself from the incumbent.

For Emanuel, a stay-the-course approach may be the best strategy. For a relatively unknown challenger in Garcia, he may have wasted an opportunity to set himself apart from the mayor to voters who remain undecided.

For Garcia, a bold budget plan that shows he has a grasp on the city's difficult financial situation is key. But instead, Garcia continues to cling to the mystery and "trust me" politics, much like Emanuel has done.

Garcia is a classic underdog, and people like to see them win. To win, however, underdogs also need to inspire and lead. It’s hard to do either when you’re unwilling to talk in detail about the issues that matter most to voters.

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