Cullerton predicts Lightfoot will get casino gambling fix, graduated real estate transfer tax during spring session

Friday 10th January 2020

Mayor Lori Lightfoot is "still learning" what Rahm Emanuel already knew about legislative lobbying, but she'll get what she needs during the spring session to avoid a massive property tax increase, retiring Senate President John Cullerton predicted Friday.

Lightfoot came up empty during the fall veto session on her two major priorities: a revised tax structure for Chicago casino and a graduated real estate transfer tax.

She managed to avoid a massive property tax increase by balancing her $11.6 billion budget with hundreds of millions of dollars in one-time revenues. But all bets are off if she strikes out again during the spring session.

Cullerton won't be there to help. He's retiring after 41 years in the Legislature and more than a decade as senate president.

But he believes the mayor will get what she needs to avoid a mid-year budget correction.

"The language with the casino is agreed to by many negotiators in the House, the Senate and the governor's office. It's just that people in gaming -- they always want to add other things. It's the things that were not in there that were causing people to not commit to vote," Cullerton told the Chicago Sun-Times.

"That's something that can easily be worked out once people realize that the Chicago casino is gonna fund the capital bill. The people downstate who get all the money for the roads. They always want to vote against Chicago. But this deal is what provides the money to pay for the roads. That's why it's inevitable that this will pass."

The real estate transfer tax got caught up in "more of a local issue," Cullerton said.

Thirteen Democratic lawmakers, ten of them with districts that include parts of Chicago, threatened to withhold their votes unless "at least 60%" of the annual funding is "statutorily dedicated" to combat homelessness.

Lightfoot said that was "never gonna happen" in a city facing a "huge deficit -- not just for this year, but in years to come."

Even so, Cullerton predicted compromise.

"It was the homeless coalition that came and asked for money from the real estate transfer tax. But the amount of money they wanted -- I don't think there was any way you could spend it all that quickly....Money spent on the homeless [goes to] providers...There's only a certain amount that they can absorb through grants," Cullerton said.

"We should find out what it is that they need....If it's double or triple what they're getting now, find [it]. Devote that money to them and then, we can pass the legislation in Springfield and the city can use the other money to help their budget."

Emanuel served as a political operative under one U.S. president and as chief-of-staff to another. He was a North Side congressman on a path to become speaker who engineered the 2006 Democratic takeover of the U.S. House. Legislative arm-twisting was his forte.

Lightfoot is a rookie mayor who deserves the benefit of the doubt, Cullerton said.

"The mayor gets sworn in and we only have two more weeks to go in the session. And she's never been in the Legislature. Unlike Rahm, who had been in a legislature and was used to the system. So, she's on a learning curve," Cullerton said.

"She came down to Springfield [and created] a positive vibe. It's just that it takes a while....She's learning....Rahm had a little bit of an advantage....Because of his experience -- Not his charm."

Cullerton advised Lightfoot to take a page from the Emanuel playbook.

"What you have to do in Springfield with Chicago issues under the radar. You can't have press conferences and brag about how you got more money for Chicago, even though you were entitled to it," he said.

As for the looming, $1 billion spike in pension payments, Cullerton urged Lightfoot to follow his lead and use the "consideration model" to hammer out cost-of-living concessions with the largest of four city employee pension funds.

"You can even incentivize folks to give up some of their future benefits by giving them a....refund of money they've paid into the pension fund in the past [or] a pay raise going forward in exchange for giving up a compounded COLA [and replacing it with] a simple COLA," he said.

"You save money in the long-term. In the short-term, they actually get more money. That's the kind of thing some workers might enjoy."

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