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This week in gas-pandering: Wilson plans 3rd giveaway, Lightfoot’s gas cards advance

A mockup of the Chicago of the Chicago Moves gas or transit card, with Lightfoot’s name on it. Image via WTTW

Why should politicians respond to rising fuel costs by simply encouraging people to avoid unnecessary car trips, carpool, and walk, bike, or take transit instead if possible, and proposing ways to make it easier for them to do those things? As the next Chicago election looms on the horizon, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and her challenger millionaire Willie Wilson see to think it's easier to win votes by pandering to motorists with free gasoline giveaways. Here's an update on this infuriating trend of rich and/or powerful people paying residents to drive in order to curry their favor.

Willie Wilson wants taxes waived for his 3rd traffic clogging, smog-producing gas giveaway Saturday

Multi-millionaire and perennial political candidate Willie Wilson recently announced his third vanity mayoral run, following two previous gas giveaways totaling $1.2 million that caused traffic jams and pollution across Chicago and suburban Cook County. Many have questioned whether future fuel handouts would amount to illegal vote buying. (That's something of a moot point, since Wilson, who opposed gay marriage, voted for Trump, and recently refused to acknowledge that Joe Biden is the legitimately elected U.S. president, has roughly a snowball's chance in hell of winning a citywide Chicago election.)

Regardless, on Wednesday the former McDonald's franchisee and medical supply mandate announced the locations for his third gas giveaway of $1 million in free gas at 15 city locations and 15 suburban gas stations this Saturday at 7 a.m. Wilson said this latest giveaway is motivated by high gas prices, as well as higher housing and food expenses. So why not simply distribute gas cards, rent vouchers, or gift certificates for grocery stores? That wouldn't provide the same front-page visuals of drivers blocking the streets as they line up for half a mile or so behind gas stations, which makes the gas giveaway stunts a relatively affordable way to buy local and national news coverage.

Where you can expect traffic jams and increased smog on Saturday.
Where you can expect traffic jams and increased smog on Saturday.
Where you can expect traffic jams and increased smog on Saturday.

It's bad enough that Wilson, who's estimated net worth is $25 million, is getting free, taxpayer-funded police and traffic-control services to facilitate his PR stunts. But this time he actually asked Lightfoot and Governor JB Pritzker to waive the taxes on his gas purchases. "The city has not suspended its gas tax, the state has kept its tax at 39 cents a gallon, and the county has not acted at all," Wilson complained in a statement. That is, he wants the taxes waived so that he can fuel his hype machine for an even more affordable price, while residents who have to deal with gridlock and degraded air quality won't even get the benefit of gas tax revenue to fund transportation infrastructure. Talk about chutzpah!

Lightfoot's gas and transit card plan advances in committee

Not that Mayor Lightfoot has been a whole lot more enlightened in this department. Her Chicago Moves transportation cost relief proposal would earmark $5 million to give away $50 prepaid transit cards for up to 100,000 residents, which is commendable. The city is also planning to give away 5,000 free bicycles, locks, and helmets, which is also a great idea. But, out of the $12.5 million she wants to earmark to help with transportation expenses, $7.5 million, the lion's share, would go towards 50,000 free prepaid cards gasoline worth $150 that can be used at gas stations within the city. So, the mayor wants to spend a lot more money to help out people who are wealthy enough to drive than those who aren’t.

As reported by WTTW's Heather Cherone, the city's budget committee voted 15-12 to approve the measure, which means it will go before the full City Council for a final vote on April 27. But plenty of aldermen pushed back, noting that the gas card plan will enrich oil companies while doing relatively little to help out everyday Chicagoans. Some suggested that the money should instead be used to boost the city's $31.5 million universal basic income program, which is giving $500 monthly payments to low-income families for one year.

Under the current proposal only Chicagoans making $65,300 or less, or $93,200 for a family of four, will be eligible for the freebies. $5.6 million of the gas cards will be set aside for South and West side residents, while $3.75 million of the transit cards will be earmarked for those parts of town.

Here's the map of "mobility hardship" areas, shown in dark red, that will get 75% of the cards under the amended ordinance.I had to ask an alder to send this to me bc @ChicagoBudget and the Budget Committee never released it or responded to my requests.

— Alex Nitkin (@AlexNitkin) April 20, 2022

But some aldermen balked at the geographic boundaries, noting their constituents, including lower-income people, were unlikely to get cards, WTTW reported. Others pointed out that the cards, which would have Lightfoot's name on them, appear to be a blatant attempt for the mayor to win publicity points in the wake of Wilson's gas-guzzling PR events.

Come on, Chicago politicians, when it comes to sucking up to motorists, let's not have a race to the bottom.

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