Chicago Motorists Could Be Target of City’s Next Cash Grab

March 8, 2024

Mayor Johnson, progressive allies are always looking for revenue

Government, particularly when led by Democrats, is always in the hot pursuit of money and bigger budgets. Municipalities with Democrats in charge never have quite enough of our tax dollars at their disposal. 

If you need proof, then look hard for examples of any governmental body that has declared: “We have plenty of cash.”

For instance: Later this month, Chicago voters will be asked to cast ballots on the "Bring Chicago Home" referendum. As of today, votes will be counted on this measure. On Wednesday, March 6, an Illinois Appellate Court reversed a Cook County Circuit judge’s February ruling that the ballot measure was unconstitutional. Opponents of the proposed referendum are expected to appeal the latest decision.

If Bring Chicago Home survives what is expected to be a furious court battle ahead of the March 19 primary and is approved by voters, the municipal real estate transaction tax will be increased on property sales over $1 million. Revenue raised would assist the homeless and provide affordable housing for the poor, although no specifics are being provided as to how either would be achieved. Besides "mansion” property transfers, the sales of apartment buildings, storefronts, offices, and warehouses will likely be subject to this tax. According to the Illinois Policy Institute, such a tax would apply to over 5,000 Chicago businesses.

If Bring Chicago Home fails, Mayor Brandon Johnson and his progressive allies are certain to explore any possible sources of revenue to fight homelessness.

And if the referendum succeeds? Well, Chicago assuredly will still be on the lookout for new streams of tax revenue. City Hall just won’t be looking as despairingly — in the short term.

Because a new problem awaits. Once the federal spigot of COVID relief funds is shutoff, Chicago's fiscal situation becomes even more dire.

Owners of automobiles may be the victims of Chicago’s next tax grab.

New York City provides Chicagoans with a forewarning of what could be coming. Although the proposal has not been finalized, this summer, a congestion tax estimated between $15 and $22.50 could be laid on New York drivers not registered in a metropolitan toll program who enter Manhattan south of Central Park. This fee would be levied on top of the hefty bridge tolls that also apply to motorists driving into Manhattan. Money from the New York congestion fee — some call it a cordon tax — will fund New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) capital fund for infrastructure improvements, maintenance, and upgrades to buses and subways.

Congestion taxes are nothing new to Chicago — one is already in place.

In 2008, Richard M. Daley proposed a congestion fee, in the form of a downtown-only parking tax, which would have raised the existing parking tax by as much as $8-per-day. Rahm Emanuel advanced a similar plan three years later, but only with a more modest $2-per-day downtown parking tax hike. Under Lori Lightfoot, the city enacted a weekday rideshare congestion tax.

It's a safe assumption that Mayor Johnson, Chicago aldermen and City Hall bureaucrats will be keeping a steady eye on how New York’s cordon fees develop.

A Chicago congestion tax would be another gut punch for downtown businesses.

Chicago's business leaders, of course, are very resourceful people. However, on political matters, particularly on issues that involve the city seeking more revenue, they often resemble hapless victims in slasher films, all but screaming out: “Why is this happening?” That is because, with the exception to their involvement in the effort to thwart the disastrous Cook County soda tax in 2017, they typically remain passive as the city becomes paralyzed by punitive tax measures.

If not a cordon tax, residents and suburbanites making the trek into the city should be prepared for Mayor Johnson and his allies to consider several options to rake in more revenue. One likely proposal could be income-based traffic fines. Chicago's current budget forecasts the city will collect $348 million in various traffic fines, including money from red-light and speed cameras. This is 15 percent increase from one year prior. 

While campaigning for mayor in 2019, Lori Lightfoot repeatedly lamented Chicago’s “addiction” to driving-related fines. Though an inept mayor, Lightfoot deserves a round of applause for recognizing this problem. Let’s give her credit, she was right on a few things.

Pivoting to Europe may help explain a thing or two.

Decades before New York imposed its congestion tax, Singapore enacted the first cordon tax in 1975. Since then, London, Milan, and Stockholm have imposed downtown congestion fees on motorists. 

On those occasions when the debate arises with liberals over social policy or raising tax revenue, the modern Left often replies: “But in Europe they do it this way.” This is an argument with gaping holes.

If those three European cities already charging congestion fees are analyzed, it reveals in Finland, traffic fines are based on income. Last year, Anders Wiklöf, one of Finland's richest men, was fined the equivalent of $130,000 for driving a modest 20 mph over the speed limit. Obviously, this is ridiculously high penalty, but it isn’t too far fetched to believe it could be introduced to Chicago.

Unsurprisingly, there are some people in the United States who think income-based fines are a great idea. For instance: Eight years ago John Greenfield, the editor of the anti-automobile website Streetsblog Chicago, proposed in the Chicago Reader what he called “sliding scale fines.” The subheading of his article certainly earns a chuckle, “Fining a pauper the same as a Pritzker can cause unjust economic hardship.”

However, Chicago's Clear Path Relief Program offers relief programs on late fees for some driving-related tickets to low-income motorists if they are also registered in two other municipal poverty-related programs.

While income-based fines seemingly violate the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution, we are living in what writer and conservative personality Mark Levin calls “the post-constitutional era.” America, and even more so Illinois, is overrun with activist judges who — although they rarely admit it openly — view the Constitution as a “living” document, a rough guideline, or, even worse, a document that was written to protect the 18th-century male patriarchy.

Income-based fines, for now, are a long shot in Chicago. Yet Chicago residents need to be, as mentioned earlier, on our guard. Four years ago, the prospect of banning natural gas furnaces and gas stoves in new buildings was seen as implausible by nearly everyone. Nevertheless, the Chicago City Council is considering legislation to do just that.

One way to help fight Mayor Johnson and the City Council from increasing the tax burden on residents or businesses is for business leaders to jump out ahead of new taxes and fees. Lobbying against Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s deeply unpopular soda tax included business leaders taking a firm stand against the tax. Eventually, the campaign for its repeal was successful.

In the future, city leadership undoubtedly will seek out placing taxes on about any commodity possible. Chicago residents need to be leery of hikes to sales and property taxes. If a commodity is not being taxed now in Chicago, then wait. A progressive or Democratic Socialist lawmaker will eventually suggest it. Or instead, someone will propose raising an existing tax.

As for a Chicago congestion tax, it may succeed too well — by ensuring downtown Chicago is not congested. 

Related Posts