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Lightfoot’s plan to spend $7.5M to pay people to burn gas narrowly passes City Council

A traffic jam on the Kennedy Expressway. The City Council just voted to use your tax money to fund more of this. Photo: John Greenfield

Chicago's trend of "gas-pandering" – politicians trying to win favor with voters by giving them free gasoline – fell to new depths today as the City Council approved Mayor Lori Lightfoot's Chicago Moves plan to spend $7.5 million in taxpayer money on free gas cards for motorists, by a vote of to 26 to 23.

That's more than three times as much cash as the $2.2 million business tycoon and mayoral challenger Willie Wilson has spent so far on three traffic-clogging, air polluting in-person gas giveaways since late March. The third one took place last Saturday at 16 gas stations in Chicago and 13 suburban locations, with $1 million in free gas distributed. More accurately, the fossil fuel was free to drivers, but taxpayers subsidized police and traffic control expenses for the event – the medical supplies mogul has refused to reimburse municipalities for those services.

On the bright side, Lightfoot's Chicago Moves program will set aside $5 million to distribute $50 prepaid transit cards for up to 100,000 residents, and the city also plans to give away 5,000 free bicycles, locks, and helmets. But out of the $12.5 million going to drivers and transit users, 50 percent more money will go towards 50,000 free prepaid cards gas worth $150. So the mayor is prioritizing Chicagoans who can afford to drive over residents who can't, which is grossly inequitable.

And it's ironic that Lightfoot is going to be paying people to generate more greenhouse emissions, since last week the city announced the 2022 Climate Action Plan, which officials billed as a “community-informed plan to mitigate climate-change impacts."

Image: City of Chicago
Image: City of Chicago
Image: City of Chicago

To their credit, several alderpersons at today's Council meeting pushed pack on Lightfoot's ordinance. They noted that the gas giveaway is an obvious effort to divert attention from Wilson's PR stunts; it won't actually do much to help needy residents; and it's totally counterproductive to Chicago's climate goals.

"This is 100 percent the wrong way to go," said 15th ward alderman and mayoral hopeful Ray Lopez. "To say it comes off as a gimmick is an understatement." He argued that it would be more helpful for all residents for the city to do a better job of addressing rising crime on the CTA, so that more Chicagoans are comfortable using transit instead of driving.

"When we're giving $3 million to the food depository and [$7.5M] for gas, something is not right," said Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th.) She added that giving drivers $150 will only pay for a couple of tanks of gas, "and then what?" Instead, she called for focusing more city resources on food relief, housing, and mental health, arguing that free gas is "not what's needed.

Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th) said that he didn't have a problem with Lightfoot putting her name on the cards, or the fact that Wilson gave away gas first. But he questioned why, when so many pressing needs go unfunded, "suddenly there's $12.5M in the couch cushions?" He added that he'd support "a prepaid card that wasn't toxic gas," but constituents he heard from were unanimously against the fossil fuel giveaway.

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

Ninth Ward alderman Anthony Beale agreed with Vasquez assessment that "we find money when we want to find it." Beale also called Lightfoot's gas plan "a gimmick at its finest," and said the money should instead be used for preventing violent crime, "the 800-pound gorilla in the room."

"I do not think the city of Chicago should be subsidizing fossil fuel," said Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd.) "Let's forgo the gas money and double down on [improving] the CTA." Like Ray Lopez, he argued that reducing crime on the system is crucial for restoring ridership, which plummeted during the COVID-19 pandemic.

49th Ward alderwoman Maria Hadden voiced concern that the neediest Chicagoans might not be able to access the digital lottery for the cards. "I would feel better about this if it was just going to CTA," she said, arguing against "throwing taxpayer dollars into a gas tank and up in smoke."

Even Ald. Nicholas Sposato (38th), perhaps the most right-wing member of the City Council, argued that paying people to drive makes no sense. He noted that last month alderpersons voted to divest the city's finances from fossil fuels. "Now we're encouraging people to buy gas." He too said Chicago should invest in the CTA instead.

Ald. Sposato testifies against the gas giveaway.
Ald. Sposato testifies against the gas giveaway.
Ald. Sposato testifies against the gas giveaway.

Most or all of the alderpersons who spoke in favor of Chicago Moves were Lightfoot loyalists, who argued that free gas was one more thing the city could do to help struggling residents of their wards. Perhaps the most absurd testimony came from 12th Ward alderman George Cardenas, who said that opposition to the mayor taking credit for the free gas by putting her name on the cards was due to racism and sexism, a claim that was met with groans and guffaws from other reps.

Cardenas also argued that if people are worried about the environment, they can use the gas cards to fuel their cars with corn-based ethanol. A recent study found that ethanol is actually worse for the climate than gasoline.

Mayor Lightfoot's defense of her plan to earmark more money for drivers than CTA riders was, perversely, based on an equity argument. She claimed that the opponents were being small-minded, and only worrying about what their own constituents think of the issue, rather than being concerned about needy people in other parts of the city.

"Back on Planet Reality, a lot of folks have to drive," Lightfoot said, rather condescendingly. "Because we have huge stretches of our city that don't have [good transit access.] We also have a lot of folks who live in the city but have to go to the suburbs for their job, and the only way they can get there is to drive... [Higher gas prices are] an emergency. People need to be able to drive their cars."

Lightfoot noted that the gas giveaway is being "coupled with discounts and incentives for people to take the CTA." The cost of CTA passes was recently reduced, and the 25-cent transfer fee was eliminated.

"And the CTA is safe," Lightfoot insisted. Here are some recent headlines:

"We are a city of neighbors," Lightfoot concluded. "And if we continue to starve certain areas of our city because 'It's not my problem and I don't want to spend my money on that,' that neglect is not cost-free... When we starve people of resources, we starve them of opportunity, we starve them of hope, and we all pay for it."

That's why the mayor feels it's so important to disproportionately spend money on encouraging drivers to pollute the environment. Got it?

Here's the final 26 to 23 tally. (The 23rd no vote was Sposato, who couldn't figure out how to use the new electronic voting system and therefore did a voice vote.)

Screen Shot 2022-04-27 at 12.20.16 PM

So if you're unhappy that your tax dollars will be used to pay people to drive, now you know who to hold accountable.

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