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Playing Politics With Coronavirus

Pritzker has used COVID-19 to push the Fair Tax, and Lightfoot to loosen the municipal purse strings. That could cost them the moral high ground needed to govern in a crisis.

Lightfoot and Pritzker at the Thompson Center on March 20, 2020, where the governor announced a statewide shelter-in-place order.   Photo: AP

If Rahm Emanuel is remembered for any quote, it may be the political dictum, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.”

Both Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Mayor Lori Lightfoot seem to be embracing that idea, by using the COVID-19 pandemic to push their most significant campaign promises. For Pritzker, it’s the Fair Tax. For Lightfoot, it’s stripping City Council of aldermanic prerogative and concentrating that power in the mayor’s office.

Pritzker has been citing the state’s projected revenue shortfall to make the case that passing a tax increase is more urgent than ever. The Illinois Fair Tax, a constitutional amendment appearing on this November’s ballot, would create a progressive income tax structure allowing a rate increase on Illinoisans earning more than $250,000 a year.

On April 15, when NBC5’s Mary Ann Ahern asked the governor whether the economic downturn meant it was “time to rethink the graduated income tax,” Pritzker responded that “we may need it now more than ever.” The same day, his office issued a statement explaining why.

“In Illinois, general revenue funds are being revised down $2.7 billion in fiscal year 2020 and $4.6 billion in fiscal year 2021,” it read. “With short term borrowing to bridge through this crisis, the total shortfall for fiscal year 2021 is $6.2 billion when compared to the spending plan put forth by the Governor in February. That shortfall expands to $7.4 billion if the constitutional amendment to move to a graduated income tax does not pass.”

In short: Vote for the Fair Tax or this already broke state will be $1.2 billion broker. A constitutional amendment requires 60 percent of the vote, so Pritzker is using any argument he can to promote what he hopes will be his signature achievement as governor.

Opponents of Pritzker’s Fair Tax say that a pandemic spurring Depression-like conditions is actually the worst time for a tax increase. The Illinois Policy Institute, a libertarian think tank and the Fair Tax’s No. 1 nemesis, argues that the amendment would lead to higher-than-advertised tax rates in order to make up for lost revenue — up to 6 percent for low earners, and 10 percent for high earners. Tim Schneider, chairman of the Illinois Republican Party, scolded Pritzker for using COVID-19 as a political cudgel.

“Pritzker using a coronavirus briefing to campaign for the progressive income tax is inappropriate and unfortunate,” Schneider said.

Of course, the Illinois Policy Institute and the Republican Party don’t think any time is right for a progressive income tax. They’re using COVID-19 as an argument against it the same as Pritzker is for it.

Meanwhile, Mayor Lightfoot was elected on a promise to root out corruption at City Hall. She vowed to end the practice of aldermanic privilege, which gives aldermen veto power over projects in their own wards.

But some aldermen believe she’s using COVID-19 to cut them out of municipal decision making all together, establishing herself as the latest mayoral boss.

Earlier this week, ProPublica published a leaked recording of a March 30 briefing on the crisis, during which Lightfoot talked down to aldermen and dismissed their questions.

In one snippet, 40th Ward Ald. Andre Vasquez asks her for a daily update on the city’s communications with the governor’s office on rent freezes.

“I don’t think that’s a great use of our time,” Lightfoot snaps. “If you’ve got specific questions, certainly direct them to [the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs.]”

Lightfoot’s alleged power grab came to a head at Wednesday’s City Council meeting, conducted over Zoom. The mayor asked for an ordinance allowing her to enter into contracts for anti-virus efforts of up to $1 million without the Council’s approval, expiring on June 30.

The ordinance passed the Budget Committee 23-10, but it was held up on Wednesday when a small group of aldermen entered a motion to defer it until Friday’s meeting. Among their concerns: ensuring money is directed to communities in need on the South and West sides.

“The City Council must resist the urge to act on fear by giving one individual, Lori Lightfoot, total control over the city and its finances,” said 15th Ward Ald. Raymond Lopez.

The fear — among those who oppose school closings, business closings, stay-at-home orders, and mandatory facemasks — is that once the government uses COVID-19 to seize power, it won’t give it back when the pandemic is over. Pritzker and Lightfoot have both provided outstanding leadership during this crisis, using their offices to convince the public to forfeit a little personal freedom for the good of the city and state.

But they’re walking a tightrope: If they use their offices to push a political agenda, or to aggregate political power, they risk losing the moral authority needed to persuade the public into important safety regulations — like strapping on masks and staying inside for another month.

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