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Good Government/Reform Tue Sep 27 2011

Chicago Inspector General Offers Budget Ideas, Politics-Free

The Chicago Inspector General, Joseph Ferguson, released a report this morning with recommendations to the city government as to how it could close its considerable budget deficit.

There is constant harping in this space (e.g., from me) about the need for democratic control of institutions and meaningful public input into public processes. Any more than a little complaining about constant deference to more or less unaccountable technocrats. Make no mistake, though--technocrats and experts--and insular bodies--do have an important role to play. One of the best things about "third party" bodies that are insulated from politics yet still part of government is that they can make findings and issue recommendations free of the type of political considerations that the elected incorporate into everything. (Which is just one of many reasons why the IG's office should be well-funded and protected from meddling).

At the same time, being part of government means the recommendations these bodies make carry more weight, generate more instant attention, and carry some imprimatur of officialdom. So I read the IG's report with some interest late last night and early this morning.

One of the things that will strike you right from the executive summary is that a number of these recommendations could save enormous sums annually with fairly straightforward actions. It takes only another moment before you realize that they would be unpopular either with powerful special interests or with casual voters. Creating a 1% city income tax, for example, would cause a stir, and Mayor Emanuel has not shown the particular style of political courage necessary to try something like that. Similarly, this administration is unlikely to take the common sense step of eliminating some of the legions of appointed supervisors who supervise ever fewer employees but enjoy high salaries and benefits.

By Ferguson's estimation, that latter change could save the city as much as $100mn a year.

The option that generated buzz this morning was transforming Lake Shore Drive into a toll road, which is unfortunate because there are a lot of other common sense suggestions that, in the short term at least, could balance the city's budget without necessarily wreaking havoc among working families, including (from a release):

· Eliminating all Tax Increment Financing Districts to increase tax revenues to the City's general fund by an estimated $100 million annually

· Increasing the work week of all City employees to 40 hours to save approximately $40 million annually

· Create a Commuter Tax estimated to generate $300 million in annual revenues

· Implement Congestion Pricing for vehicular traffic that is estimated to generate an additional annual revenues of $235 million

· Broadening the City's Amusement Tax which would produce an additional $105 million in annual revenues

A lot of this is necessarily unlikely. They would be major, if simple, changes, and Emanuel's entire political career is one of risk-aversion, and the City Council is not really equipped to take any initiative. Still, having a body in government that can put forward options and recommendations like this, to at the very least make the public aware of what is conceivable and possible--and what politicians are unwilling, for their own person political reasons, to do--is essential to good government.

To read the full report, follow the jump. Also, check out IG Ferguson on WBEZ's 848 this morning. (I was on after him).

IGO- 2011 Budget Options- September 27, 2011-Final

 
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