New ordinance would make it harder for Chicago City Council to tax and spend

Chicagoans are seeking shelter from a barrage of city tax hikes.

The Windy City is home to the highest sales tax in the nation. It is in the midst of a record-breaking property tax hike and a water-sewer tax increase. Residents already shoulder the highest tax and fee burden in Illinois.

But one alderman is proposing a simple yet potentially powerful solution: Make it harder to pass tax hikes. And make it more difficult to spend wildly in the first place.

Ald. Gilbert Villegas, 36th Ward, introduced an ordinance Oct. 5 that would require a two-thirds vote from City Council to pass any tax hike. All city appropriations would have to meet an equally high threshold.

That means most city spending would need the support of 34 aldermen, not a simple majority of 26. The same goes for any attempts to raise revenues.

Critics of supermajority requirements for tax hikes argue governments can simply find other ways to extract more revenue from residents. But Villegas’ ordinance not only requires a two-thirds vote for any hike in tax rates or increase in tax revenue, but also requires supermajority vote for fee hikes or any actions that would increase fee revenue.

A large portion of Chicagoans’ city government cost burden comes in the form of fees, not taxes.

Supermajority requirements for local tax hikes already exist in other cities across the nation.

In 2015, Texas lawmakers passed a bill requiring a 60 percent majority vote for all local property-tax increases. Mere months after its passage, Dallas taxpayers avoided a $100 million property-tax hike as the city’s school district voted 5-4 to accept the proposal – one vote short of the 60 percent threshold.

In Washington, three large localities have instituted supermajority requirements for tax hikes in the last four years: Spokane, Yakima and Pierce County (the second most populous county in the state).

These requirements don’t make tax hikes impossible. But they do force lawmakers to come to a much greater consensus before dropping the hammer on taxpayers, or spending beyond their means. They’re also a roadblock to special interests seeking subsidies or other preferential treatment with taxpayer dollars.

Chicago City Council already requires a two-thirds vote for other important actions.

Aldermen need to muster 34 votes to override a mayoral veto, for example. They must meet that threshold to create special committees. City Council rules also dictate that any legislative matter introduced to the council automatically heads to a committee without debate. But a two-thirds majority vote can suspend those rules and allow for immediate consideration.

Chicagoans can only put up with unfettered tax hikes and profligate spending for so long. Sensible safeguards such as those Villegas proposed are a breath of fresh air.

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