Correction: The original version of this article published on November 3rd stated that new money for mental health would come out of federal funds instead of the city corporate fund. That error has been corrected here and the article has been updated throughout to clarify ambiguities of the budget. Rampant editors, November 16, 2021
On Wednesday, October 27th, Lori Lightfoot celebrated passing her 2022 budget in what the Sun-Times described as “record time” and the “most tranquil budget season in recent memory.” Lightfoot boasted that she delivered the “most progressive budget” in the history of the city. We have a more critical view of the budget and think reflecting on its passage is important.
In Chicago, with the strength of our movements and the number of socialist city councilors in office, how we evaluate the budget is an important task as it reflects on our future organizing strategy. The assessment thus far bears marks of confusion. The votes of alderpersons affiliated with Democratic Socialists of America were not consistent, with four voting in favor of the budget and two voting against. We think that rather than a reflection of the gains of the socialist movement, the budget helps secure Lightfoot’s political power and reflects challenges to be overcome. We hope this piece can help draw out threads for discussion.
The current budget that just passed holds a lot of promise for Black and brown working-class Chicagoans. The Chicago Budget Coalition—composed of grassroot community groups, which included groups we are a part of and have worked with like DSA, DefundCPD United Working WFamilies, independent political organizations, CCW and many other community groups, as well as three progressive alderman and the socialist caucus—have worked tirelessly to secure over $1.2 billion in vital programs such as funding for mental health clinics, affordable housing and houselessness prevention, cash assistance, environmental protections, and more. We appreciate these improvements, and many organizers were part of the efforts to ensure the funding of those programs.
These programs do present material differences to many working-class Chicagoans. Without denying that fact, it is also important to point out that this budget is woefully insufficient. Through the negotiation process, the proposed amount for these programs was reduced by 40 percent. Much of what the budget did deliver came directly from the largesse of federal aid money, accounting for $3.5 billion of this year’s budget, roughly 22 percent of the total. This money (primarily CARES Act and American Rescue Plan funds) will expire, putting the security of these social programs primarily funded by these federal dollars at risk.
We should also look at the funding for public mental health, which has received special focus for our side. The Collaborative for Community Wellness (CCW) put forward that a $100 million investment is required to regain the losses the city’s public mental health system suffered under Rahm Emanuel. The Chicago Budget Coalition, with CCW and alderperson Rossana Rodriguez-Sancez, secured $6.3 million over three years for twenty-nine permanent new staff at the remaining clinics. This money for new jobs won does come from the corporate fund, less tenuous than the federal money.
While it is the case that this is a meaningful increase to public mental health resources for Chicagoans, it is striking that we still don’t appear anywhere close to repairing the damage wrought by Rahm’s closures—despite Lightfoot’s own hollow campaign promises to restore $25 million to the clinics. Moreover, neither the CCW nor Lightfoot’s figure would provide a socialist conception of a robust, non-carceral public mental health service that would transform the lives of the working class in Chicago. Even CCW’s figure would be a return to the status quo, which was a bare minimum to meet the needs of Chicagoans. That makes the deal for $6.3 million even more concerning and puzzling, especially when other comrades, allied organizations and select socialist alderpersons frame it as a pivotal win or victory instead of the bare minimum that it is.
If those of us who were part of the public budget coalition wanted these programs to be on better footing for future funding, their funding needed to primarily draw the city’s corporate fund. In addition, there are multiple progressive revenue proposals around fees and public banking that could allow us to overcome the right-wing ban on progressive taxation. Instead, the 2022 budget contains more regressive funding of the city budget through fines, fees, a greenlight on a tax levy (increase in the size of the tax pie), and an increase in new taxes for new homeowners.
We shouldn’t have given up on he idea of proposing and fighting for robust revenue options during the budget process that could be passed at the city level is not good strategy or politics in the face of another regressive property-tax levy and tax increase after two years of COVID-19 pandemic. The public debt that constrains public funding in Chicago is a liberal political construction that can largely be overcome at the city level. But as far as we know, no such attempts were made, which then positioned us within the political calculus of neoliberalism, of austerity, or minimal funding of basic social programs.
This makes Lightfoot’s decision to increase property taxes and rely on debt swaps to pay the city’s budget all the more troubling, this time buoying it with federal aid money. Roughly half a billion dollars of the budget was earmarked to pay off city debts, thus funneling federal money directly into the coffers of the large banks and padding the profits of the biggest financial institutions in the world.
All in all, Lightfoot cleverly used one-time federal money to incrementally fund progressive programs, while leaving the general structure of the city intact: regressive funding, enriched banks with continued predatory debt financing, clinics not open, and, crucially, increased funding for the cops at the expense of effective, non-carceral public safety alternatives that have been proven to reduce and prevent interpersonal violence, especially gun violence, in communities most impacted by it.
The argument that “we can’t get progressive revenue because we need to do it at the state-level,” as we have pointed out, is technically inaccurate. Similarly, the argument that the “FOP contract vote locked in the 11 percent increase,” echoed by many progressives, socialists, and grassroots organizations working within and adjacent to the public budget coalition, is also inaccurate at the technical level. More importantly, these supposed barriers present the need to progressively raise revenue and invest in communities as a set of technical or procedural issues that need to be fixed, rather than the political issues they are. When liberals need to find money to fund something, like police, they find the money. But when they want to cut or not fund something, even when we can pay for it, they still make the cuts.
Funding the Police
These modest gains come at a heavy price: an 11 percent increase in funding for the violent institution of policing. Some on our side, even from the public budget coalition table, have claimed this increase was locked in due to the approved Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) contract, but this is inaccurate at best and disingenuous at worst. Three defund-related budget amendments were sent to the budget committee to push back against this increase. However, alders were not able to get these to be on the agenda for the budget committee, let alone on the agenda for the full city council. These amendments included reducing the advertising budget of CPD to by 90 percent, cutting vacancies for 2022, and ending the ShotSpotter contract. But just on basic technical terms without the amendments, the mayor’s office could have easily funded the raises, honored the commitments of the FOP contract, and still cut 11 percent from the CPD in various other programming unrelated to raises or items covered by the FOP contract. To this we would also add that our movement should oppose raises for cops, full stop.
This budget increased police spending to $1.9 billion—the largest amount Chicago has ever spent on the cops. Adjusted for inflation, per capita spending on police has more than tripled since 1964. This increase in police funding comes from the city corporate fund, which means the increase is all but guaranteed to continue, and cop budgets tend to be the last cut by the least amount. A portion of that increase goes to five years of retroactive raises promised to the negotiations with the Fraternal Order of Police in September.
The $1 million promised to the Treatment Not Trauma pilot last year illustrates this. Though we technically won that meager amount, and the funding was there to be used, it was never released to be implemented due to the mayor deliberately stalling implementation. We didn’t have a Treatment Not Trauma pilot this year not because of a technical problem, but a political one.
This matters because many of the arguments from the public budget coalition, progressives, and socialists centered on what was feasible, reasonable, or realistic and hinged on these kinds of technical caveats that we actually do not need to accept.
Why We Demanded a No Vote
This budget increased funding to the police, approved an additional regressive tax levy, and additional taxes for new homeowners, yielding in exchange crumbs for our communities of a kind that often don’t meaningfully even flow into the wards that need them most. Because of all of this, the Chicago AfroSocialists and Socialist of Color Caucus of the DSA implored our socialist alderpersons to vote No on this budget but only hours before the vote. Two DSA alderpeople, Byron Sigcho-Lopez and Jeanetter Tayler voted against the budget, but, while some of them spoke out objecting to regressive and repressive spending on banks and the police, the other four DSA alderpeople, Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez, Daniel La Spata, and (DSA member but not a member of the socialist caucus) Andre Vasquez, voted in favor.
For us this budget does not meet the bare minimum of divesting from policing and investing in our communities. Whether one measures the budget on the divesting end or on the investing side of things, Black and brown working-class communities are going to be on the losing end. The police get a budget increase paid for in a sustainable way and their budget is considered sacrosanct, while the programs poor and working-class Chicagoans need to live and thrive are still insufficiently funded and put on precarious footing at best.
This should put the more secure wins around mental health funding in stark relief. It is harder to call the $6.3 million dollar increase delivered over three years a clear victory when the CPD receives $5 million dollars a day. The increase to mental health funding, while substantially more than has been spent in a number of years, amounts to 2.1 million a year, while the CPD budget was increased by 200 million this year.
The decision of the four DSA alderpeople and the Chicago Budget Coalition to add funding for social programs to a regressive city budget has the echoes of past socialists entering into compromises with liberals that led to carceral and imperial social democracy expanding dramatically—where liberals get their cops, military, and prisons while socialists get precarious social welfare programs. We can’t fall prey to these kinds of compromises.
If this is the future of compromises we on the electoral left choose to make, then we need to rethink our approach. There is just no meaningful path to working-class freedom if we have to give police and prisons a large boost in funding in order to get one year of contingent funding on programs such as affordable housing, violence prevention, and other services.
The House Wins
The other dynamic to analyze is how this “victory” bolsters the mayor’s reelection chances. While we cannot dismiss that some compromised funding for important programs was won, Lightfoot is very happy to be able to proclaim that she has passed the “most progressive budget” in Chicago’s history. United Working Families proclaimed how we have “set the terms of the debate” or Alderman Vasquez claiming that we have won “a Christmas list” risks bolstering Lightfoot’s public persona as the great reformer.
The passing of this budget will be paired with the the passing of the severely compromised ECPS police reform, in which “the people of Chicago are granted the right to elect the people who select the people who may or may not be appointed by the mayor to give the illusion of having a say in how the Chicago Police Department operates.” The passing of this toothless resolution allows Lightfoot to claim that she delivered the police reform that was part of her platform in her run for mayor without delivering anything substantial.
With the budget and the passage of ECPS, it looks highly likely that Lightfoot will have a firm grip on the mayor’s office come election time. Past challenger Toni Preckwinkle’s decision to run for Cook County president, and thus potentially take her out of the race, seems to underline this.
Lightfoot now appears to have weathered multiple instances of police cover-up: the murders of Adam Toledo, Anthony Alvarez, and others; the assault of Anjanette Young; as well as the violent repression of protest and mobility within the city during the Black Lives Matter uprising in 2020. She has funneled federal relief money into police budgets and banks and presided over an administration that operates against the needs of Chicago’s working people, especially those Black and brown folks who face the brunt of CPD police terror.
In a city that still very much functions under the regime of strong mayoral control, the challenge for the left is how to upset the power of the mayor’s office and its corporate backers. This budget has allowed Lighfoot to use the significant largesse of federal money to coat the poison pill of a city administration that has done little to live up to any of her campaign promises or improve the lives of Chicagoans and that operates in open contempt of trade unions like the Chicago Teachers Union and has doubled down on being “tough-on-crime.”
In this situation, our movements need a sharp and decisive approach to how we combat the mayor’s agenda. Split votes on key things like the budget from socialist alderpeople and contradictory messaging from our side (e.g. should the budget be protested or supported?) needs to be sorted out with robust, open debate.
Debating the Way Forward
There is a tension that exists for socialist alderpeople, who are both the elected representatives of their wards and a representative of the political alternative of socialism. But fighting for constituents is fundamentally compatible with building durable working-class power, and we can recognize this tension in the moment without abandoning a socialist vision and strategy that would deliver meaningful change for all working Chicagoans.
When grassroots groups like those involved in the budget coalition point toward formations like the public budget coalition as the solution to making sound political decisions that are democratic, there is another tension that should be named. Though formally democratic, the coalition as currently constructed lacks a socialist and abolitionist political vision connected to challenging some of the foundational assumptions of how city budgets are constructed. The default strategy is designed to “make a deal” and thus we are afraid that it can lead to enabling bad concessions as with this budget process and vote. The problem was compounded when those most present at the table did not ring the alarm publicly or privately and take the discussion back to their organizations when talk of potential Yes votes occured.
Some want to put the responsibility solely on specific alderpeople who voted Yes or specific organizations who cheerleaded the process, but just as much onus needs to be put on the movement rank-and-file and our organizational representatives at the coalition negotiating table who stood idly by and said nothing, or even tried to convince members various radical and progressive organizations like DSA, DefundCPD Campaign, Chicago AfroSOC, and others that this budget was a victory.
We know this is tough for many of our comrades to hear who support voting Yes on this budget. We hope this is read as an invitation to principled debate and not derided as simple ultra-leftism. We also ask our comrades who support voting No on the budget not to fall into coming at our comrades who supported voting Yes as “sellouts” or acting in “bad faith.” Such name-calling gets us nowhere. These are meaningful differences over strategy and should be treated as such. This is how we ensure we do better in organizing ourselves and the working class around socialist and abolitionist politics in the future.
How this plays out is complicated. Calculation of how much could be won for constituents and discussion on the ward level always are necessary, but these contradictions, when not confronted head-on, get in the way of building an alternative socialist pole within Chicago politics. This is why we want to point out and elaborate on these contradictions, which are only alluded to in Chicago DSA’s statement.
We will not be able to address the deeper problems that put us in this position of only having bad choices by simply stating that “all reforms under capitalism are limited” and leaving it at that. The only way to address that underlying problem is to have substantive discussions and struggle over strategy: how to fight, how much to concede and when. If we are going to go beyond the restrained political calculations in order to build the kind of force of antagonism and political will against the powerful interests of capital in the city needed to defund the cops and break the regime of mayoral control, we have to be clearer on these strategic questions. We all have our work cut out for us.