We Have a Budget, Now, Reform!

The first hurdle has been cleared in Illinois’ arduous effort to write a budget. After two years of stalemate one has passed, albeit without the approval of Governor Bruce Rauner and by overriding vetoes in both the legislative houses (including defections by GOP representatives and Democrats). Threats by credit rating agencies to downgrade the state’s credit to junk status certainly put the fire beneath officials to end this stalemate. The threat to the state’s long-term fiscal health has not passed, however, and frankly much harder work is ahead for lawmakers as they try (or at least claim they are trying) to whip this state into shape.

Reform is needed–desperately! With the stalemates in Springfield, animosity high between the parties, and a increasingly weary public the idea of reform seems unrealistic and far off. Nevertheless, now is the time to talk reform, nay, demand it and make it happen. An obvious detriment to instituting reform is the absence of a clear coalition to lead discussions on government reform and identify policies for implementation in the short-, medium-, and long-term. (Why not add my two cents?) Fundamentally, the state needs to re-evaluate just about every aspect of how it runs, from taxes to education to local governance to voting and elections, to ensure it can actually transform into a livable place. None of this will be easy, but as citizens we must begin crafting ideas that we can present to lawmakers.

Residents should not be pessimistic about the potential of this state although lately the negative headlines reinforces a towering pessimism that has descended on this state. Yet, Illinois, in spite of its many problems, still has huge potential to succeed.

First, let’s remind ourselves that Illinois is actually quite a wealthy state. It’s fiscal problems do not lie in a lack of economy or human capital. Indeed, residents need to understand this state’s wealth and potential to know we can and must demand more of the government, which (reminder) we elect.

As of 2010, Illinois had the fifth largest state economy in the US and the 13th highest state GDP (excluding Washington, DC), and the latter is higher than the national average. To put this in perspective, Illinois’ economy is as large as Turkey, which ranks 17th in
the world according to the IMF. Illinois also produces a surplus in federal revenue from the states. In fact, it ranks fourth in the size of its surplus (the money sent to the federal government in taxes versus the amount of federal money spent in Illinois). This speaks to the state’s revenue potential.

Likewise, if Chicago was a county, its economy would be worth well over a half billion dollars, according the Brookings Institute. This would put it around Argentina or Saudi Arabia in economic size.

None of this speaks to the health of the state’s economy. The ongoing crisis in Springfield and Chicago’s City Hall will have a long-term impact on how well the state and city can perform. That said, Illinois has a really strong footing to build upon. Additionally, the state has shown itself to be open to progressive policies even if it is not a national leader. Then again, it has also kicked the can down the road consistently deepening a crisis that for years was growing more obvious. Reform is going to have to come in waves, but each should lead to and build off the other. It will not happen without the increasingly incessant voices of voters on these issues. Thus, I present a rough framework for reform.

Producing Reform

The fact of the matter is that a number of ideas for reform exist. I am not coming up with anything new or radical. What I am doing is trying to organize a set of ideas presented from multiple fronts in a way that is digestible and coordinates ideas from a number of fronts. Voters need to begin demanding and showing they expect law makers to follow through on changes. This has to be a packaged deal.

The Short Term

There is a short list of ideas that could reasonably pass in the next legislative session, or at least within a year. These should be made as an indication to residents that reform efforts are underway. They include:

  • Legalization of recreational marijuana use and its sale, which creates new business opportunities, produces millions in new revenue, and eliminates incarceration for a victimless crime.
  • Expand the franchise with automatic voter registration (currently underway).
  • Establishing a non-partisan, independent commission to draw voting districts to eliminate partisan districting (may be forced due to a decision by SCOTUS concerning a case out of Wisconsin).
  • Re-write the Illinois Election Code so that the election of all state legislative seats and the governor is done by a run-off system, wherein the two rounds of voting occur; the top two candidates in the first round run head-to-head in the second. This is similar to the French system and would open more space for independent and third party candidates.
  • Explore putting term-limits in place for the Governor and State Representatives leaving.*
  • Beginning in 2018 (and this is important for the later efforts) issue biannual budgets. This allows legislators more time to focus on the details of legislation and reform and spend less time every year bickering about budgets.

Frankly, it’s naïv to think all this could pass, but they’re reasonable first steps. (I lack confidence electoral reform would happen, for example). Now that a budget has passed voters need to turn their attention to discussing such immediate opportunities for reform with their legislators.

The Medium Term

The first round of reforms should achieve a few things: create a more equitable electoral system, produce new revenue through alternative sources, and regain the trust of voters. The second set of reforms, ones that may take longer, should begin addressing some of the structural problems in the state like tax equity.

  • Establish a graduated income tax on residents beginning with the 2018 budget. This should use the new 4.95% rate as the base (pegged to Illinois’ median income). Illinois has one of least progressive income tax rates in of US states.
  • Establish an additional 1% municipal income tax (on top of the state income tax regardless of income bracket, see above) that is split equally between the municipality where individuals have their residence and where they make their income. This ensures all municipalities have a dedicated revenue source beyond property taxes and ensure municipalities with large employment bases receive the revenue to fund services used by people employed there but not living there.
  • Reform of Illinois’ sales tax to ensure it’s also progressive. This includes removing taxes on general necessity goods such as basic clothing items (following Minnesota’s model) and food items. (Luxury clothing should not be exempt.) Additionally, as people consume more services and fewer products the tax code must be rewritten to emphasize taxing services (especially luxury services) which are generally exempt at the moment. A reasonable solution would be to pass legislation mandating increased taxes on services to overlap with current sales tax rates before those changes take effect. (This would, similarly to a plan by the Civic Federation, create a one-time boost in state revenues to help pay of backlogged bills.) Finally, sales tax surcharges should be permitted, indeed actively encouraged, for products that have negative impacts on individuals and/or societal costs or consumption of which is entirely voluntary and unnecessary for a person’s basic well-being (private cars and trucks, candy, cigarettes, alcohol, marijuana, pop etc.).
  • Increase the gas tax. The low state and federal gas taxes are a scourge on transportation infrastructure maintenance and investment. An increase in the tax has to include a provision that the tax will also rise with inflation to ensure revenue stays adequate. Additionally, an increase must be married to a provision that shows a commitment to economically and environmentally sustainable investments, including a moratorium on new road projects until current infrastructure receives high grade marks again. This should exclude mass transit infrastructure.
The Long Term

This is the hard part: Illinois needs to begin instituting broad structural reforms to make sure that is a well-oiled, high efficient machine. This most palpably means tackling the problems of pensions (which I frankly, have no clue how to address), government waste, and education funding.

  • Reforming education funding and the structure of Illinois’ education system will go a long-way to funnel to money where its needed: the classroom. A good start is the education funding reform bill that passed the state legislature, but it is only a stop-gap measure, as it does not address the bane of Illinois’ school funding problems: too many administrative levels. Per a Metropolitan Planning Council report, decreasing the amount of administration (read: number of school districts) and associated costs would produce the millions the schools need without increased revenue.
  • Decrease the number of other governments. Illinois has over 7,000 units of government, which is almost three times the number of government units in California, a state that has over three times the population and is 2.5 times the size of Illinois. Absurdity is what you would call this. This should include combining and condensing school districts (per the point above), combining government units that perform similar tasks as other units, and encouraging annexation to lower the number of cities, towns, and villages in the state (especially in Chicagoland).

A series of difficult years and legislative sessions are ahead of Illinois as the state pulls itself away from the brink. Success requires due attention by residents and a strong body of voices advocating for a cohesive series of reforms to make the state more politically and economically equitable, sustainable, and efficient. There are many much larger issues than the state budget for the state to begin addressing in earnest (police violence, the wealth gap, global climate change etc.). The longer the state bogs itself down in budgetary challenges, the less time is spent on addressing real issues.


*I do not believe in total restriction on how long all members of government may serve, thus I exclude the Senate as a balance.

 

An Open Letter: Stop Trying to Draw Tourists to Chicago

An Open Letter to Mr. Laurence Geller and Mr. Lou Raizin:

As a Chicagoan, I appreciate the investments you make in the city and the work you continue to do to improve Chicago. Your newest venture however concerns me. The concept you’ve recently proposed–a 17-story aerial gondola from Navy Pier to the South Branch of the Chicago River–is quite frankly a dumb idea. Sorry for raining on this parade, but building tourist traps should not be a priority for the city, now or ever. While tourism can play an important part in a city’s economy the responsibility of government and civic leaders should be the well-being of the city first and visitors second. Indeed, a healthy and vibrant city for residents is a healthy and vibrant city for visitors.

Let’s begin with a little anecdote: When I first visited London in the winter of 2012 I asked a hostel employee working the desk for interesting recommendations. They were local and I figured their opinion about do’s and don’t’s in London would be best. Their immediate answer was this: Avoid the London Eye. Don’t ride it. Don’t pay for it. And if you can, don’t even go near it. Enjoy it from a distance sure, but otherwise it’s best to stay away.

I hadn’t even brough up the Eye and this was the unsolicited response I got. The Eye in the eyes of the average Londoner was the tourist trap of tourists traps. As the hostel employee put it “you’ll pay 30 pound, see everything in the first five minutes and then awkwardly spend 25 minutes with total strangers in a pod.”

How apropos that the designers of the Eye are on your consultation team.

Let’s heed this warning though. Tourists traps can draw visitors, but how often do they add to a city’s actual quality of life and the experiences of residents? While I acknowledge the importance with which you view tourism as part of Chicago’s economy I would hope that you would focus more on quality than gimmicks. Great cities draw visitors (and residents) not because of the potential to ride a ferris wheel or gondola, but by virtue of them being great cities. Keep this in mind. I’m not here to be a NIMBY, but rather a QIMBY (QUALITY In My BackYard).

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As you move forward to improve the tourist experience and draw to Chicago ask yourself: How will these gondolas also serve and benefit the people who actually live in Chicago? A gondola system itself is not a bad idea. Your proposed gondola system is a bad and unnecessary idea however, because it doesn’t add to the experience of living in Chicago and only serves tourists (assuming its succesful). On the other hand proposals for gondolas in Washington, D.C. and New York City both show how they have the potential to become integral parts to a city’s public transportation network while also serving tourists. Because they’re right for some cities doesn’t mean they’re right for all cities though.

You have put forward some great ideas that shouldn’t be overlooked for gondolas. These are the ones we should move forward; this includes working with the Lyric Opera to organize summer time open air operas on the river. This adds to the experience of being a Chicagoan by providing residents (and tourists) greater access to culture, while also raising the profile of one of the city’s great cultural institutions. This is an investment that enriches people’s lives and creates good jobs, not just any jobs. (I can only assume many of the jobs associated with a gondola would be rather low quality service sector jobs.)

Work with what Chicago has and use your influence, money, and minds to reinforce and improve these assets. How can we make Chicago’s theater and comedy scene stronger? How can we support the Chicago Architecture Biennale, which focuses on our great architectural heritage? How can we protect that heritage!? How can we improve the museums we already have (which are ample and amazing) before courting new ones? What transit projects should we support that help residents and tourists alike get around? What makes people want to not just visit a city, but live there too? These are the questions to ask.

So, I appreciate and encourage the enthusiasm, but don’t let it get the better of you and become a glittery distraction. People didn’t start visiting London because of the Eye, they visited and continue to visit London, because it’s an amazing city.

Yours,

Michael

 

 

Don’t Forget the Boulevards (Just a Reminder)

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Plan of Chicago 1909 (source: afterburnham.com)

Since I first wrote about better utilizing Chicago’s boulevards for biking much has in Chicago: new rails-to-trails projects are being planned in in Pilsen, Little Village and Englewood, Divvy is expanding, and curbed protected bike lanes are finally making an appearance. Additionally, the city announced plans for 50 miles of new “low stress” bike lanes (often the same as barrier-protected bike lanes, or PBLs), thus swapping quantity for quality. In spite of all this though, the boulevards still don’t seem to be getting any love? Progress is being made in terms of biking, but then again, just focusing on this mode undercuts the potential for the entire boulevard system.

Chicago’s boulevards are an amazing piece of infrastructure that are sadly under utilized. Beginning in Logan Square at Western Ave. on the North Side, the system of boulevards and squares connects some of Chicago’s most important parks and numerous neighborhoods and the lakefront at Jackson Park while creating an arch around the city’s core.

The product of Daniel Burnham’s vision for Chicago and archetypal urban design of the city beautiful movement, the boulevards currently fall flat. Unlike in European cities like Paris or Vienna, which also have famous boulevards, Chicago’s are a quiet affair with light traffic of all kinds, even in popular neighborhoods like Logan Square where the focus is Milwaukee Avenue.

Humboldt Blvd Looking South (Source: Google Maps)

Humboldt Boulevard looking south towards the 606 is virtually empty. (Source: Google Maps)

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A segment of the Vienna Ring Boulevard (Ringstraße); the Ring is broken into different segments for its entire length, which includes bike and pedestrian lanes, streetcar lanes, and traffic lanes each lined with trees. (Source: Michael Podgers)

Avenida-da-Liberdade

This boulevard in Lisbon, Portugal features an attractive park-median with a variety of usable spaces. (Source: travelvivi.com)

Aside from the incorporation of the boulevards into some transportation plans such as the Active Transportation Alliance’s Bikeways For All or the Chicago Department of Transportation’s (CDOT) Cycling for 2020 as well as smaller, localized concepts there is currently no guide specifically addressing the boulevards.

A plan for the boulevards is overdue.

The boulevards are one of the best, overlooked assets in Chicago, but they offer so much more. They can’t be treated as mere elements of other plans and projects though, because that undercuts the potential for how the city can utilize them. What makes the boulevards unique is how well they can be used as public spaces, green space, and corridors of active transportation. This needs to be viewed in a way that takes in the boulevards’ full extent. A complete program could radically change the character of the city.

Chicago Blvd System (Source: Google Maps)

Chicago’s boulevards make arc around the Loop and connect Logan Square on the Northwest Side to Hyde Park and Lake Michigan on the South Side via Humboldt Park, Garfield Park, Washington Park, and Jackson Park.

Although over time piecemeal changes to the boulevards could change a lot, a master plan would help bring about cohesive change to how they’re used in a way that allows for more radical ideas to be examined and potentially carried through. This includes everything from road diets along the boulevards to improving recreational spaces along the system, building kiosks for cafés and other small businesses to developing an advanced boulevard based transportation system like Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) or streetcars.

Michigan v Ohio State

Here’s an idea of how big one football field is, in case like me, you couldn’t visualize it. (Source: buckeyesnews.com)

What such changes would look like varies depending on the segment of boulevard in question. Humboldt Blvd between Palmer Square and Humboldt Park is a good candidate for conversion to green space for example. It’s wide, but underused express lanes are little more than speedways, while the local lanes serve real purpose. Converting these four lanes (approximate width 10 feet per lane and about 0.7 miles long) into green space would add 147,480 ft 2 or 3.4 acres (or, two and a half football fields) of new parkland to the city.

This is only one segment of the boulevard system though and is a project that functions in relative isolation from the rest of the system. As a transportation corridor, the boulevards still hold real potential both unto themselves and as parts of other city projects. On Western Blvd. for example, the double-wide layout from 31st to 55th streets could be used for building out a BRT network that would eventually extend the entire length of Western Ave. (in addition to an Ashland BRT route of course). This roughly three-mile long segment has potential other redesign options, but would be a good place for a starter BRT route.

Another example of this is the potential of the boulevards to be used for reintroducing the streetcar to Chicago. A route following Garfield Blvd./55th St. from Hyde Park to Midway has great potential for success for multiple reasons a particular one being the ability to build dedicated lanes due to the available space on the boulevards. Four miles of a 9 mile route from the Museum of Science and Industry to Midway could easily be built with dedicated lanes (critical for developing a successful streetcar network) and another 1 mile of dedicated lanes could be shared with BRT on either Western or Ashland avenues.

Chicago Blvds (Source: Michael Podgers)

The boulevards offer the potential to introduce new transportation modes to Chicago and experiment with other urban planning/design concepts not widely seen in the city yet. (Source: Google Maps, Michael Podgers)

This doesn’t even speak to the ability to build a “Circle Line” along the boulevards using streetcars rather than a new ‘L’ line, which would be significantly more expensive. It’s too bad discussing the boulevards’ future isn’t part of a very active conversation about Chicago’s future. The boulevards and streetcars are not included as part of the Active Transportation Alliance’s Transit Future campaign and Chicago Streetcar Renaissance has focused on starter lines along Clark St., Lake Shore Drive, and in the Loop. A 55th/63rd Hyde Park to Midway streetcar would be a huge asset to the South Side and probably a heavily used route considering it would connect three ‘L’ lines, the South Shore Line, Metra Electric and all of it to Midway.

Regardless of what’s included a plan for the boulevards is necessary. All of the boulevards have the space to facilitate the easy and unobtrusive construction of better bike and pedestrian infrastructure and transit infrastructure not to mention improve accessibility to public green spaces also. Such types of complete streets and seamless modal connectivity is what advocates are calling for in Chicago, but the conversation keeps overlooking a critical asset in establishing these things. Fundamentally, the boulevards are not being capitalized on.

Stepping back and acknowledging what the boulevards can be in Chicago alters the role they play in the city’s structure. Not only are they visually lovely elements of early American urban planning, they’re spaces ripe for improved infrastructure and experimentation with projects so far unseen in the city.