Seven Ways Chicago Can Put Working Families Before Wall Street

March 24, 2015

The ReFund America Project released a new report this morning, “Our Kind of Town: A Financial Plan that Puts Chicago’s Communities First.” The report lays out a plan for getting Chicago’s finances back on track without painful austerity measures, which exacerbate economic inequality by forcing working families to shoulder the cost.

Over the last month, Moody’s Investors Service downgraded the credit ratings of the City of Chicago and Chicago Public Schools (CPS) to near junk level. Last week, Fitch Ratings followed by cutting CPS’s rating to just one notch above junk. Even though the major credit rating agencies are unreliable institutions, rife with conflicts of interest, a history of missed calls, and a reputation for using their ratings to push political agendas, these downgrades have put the issue of financial management front and center in Chicago’s political debate. Questions about how best to manage the city’s money shine a spotlight on the competing interests of Chicago residents and the powerful Wall Street firms that have been profiting from the city’s financial problems.

In the developing world, the International Monetary Fund and World Bank require financially distressed governments to enact painful cuts in order to obtain financing. Moody’s and Fitch are similarly using these downgrades to push an austerity agenda in Chicago. These downgrades will benefit Wall Street firms because the city and CPS will be forced to take out more expensive products like credit enhancements and bond insurance to boost investor confidence in their bonds. Already, the city and CPS are on the hook for a combined $300 million in penalties connected to interest rate swaps as a result of these downgrades. But all of this is wholly unnecessary because none of Chicago’s governmental units are actually in any danger of defaulting on their bonds.

Moreover, this response will come at the expense of community services like education, mental health, and parks programs. Many politicians are already using the downgrades to call for austerity measures that would take a toll on Chicago’s most vulnerable residents and to justify slashing government workers’ pensions, in violation of the Illinois Constitution. State Representative Ron Sandack has even introduced a bill in the Illinois Legislature to allow municipalities to file bankruptcy in order to circumvent the state constitution’s protection of public pension funds.

The current discourse ignores the simple reality that the city is not spending too much on either public services or workers. The real problem with Chicago’s budget is that the city is hemorrhaging money on predatory financial deals with Wall Street banks and not properly taxing its wealthiest corporations and residents. Chicago needs a proactive agenda that puts the needs of communities first. In the short term, this includes measures like:

  • Recovering losses from predatory municipal finance deals. The City of Chicago, its related governmental units, and their pension funds should take all steps to recover taxpayer dollars when banks deal unfairly with them. This includes taking both legal and economic action to try get out of bad deals like interest rate swaps and recoup lost money.
  • Reducing financial fees by 20 percent across the board. The City of Chicago, its related governmental units, and their pension funds should press for negotiations demanding 20 percent reductions on all financial fees to force Wall Street firms to share in the sacrifices that Chicagoans are being forced to make every day.
  • Insourcing pension fund management. The City of Chicago and its related governmental units should bring investment management in-house for a significant portion of their pension funds’ investments, by hiring qualified staff with a proven record of effective management instead of paying Wall Street firms tens of millions of dollars each year to accomplish the same goal.
  • Ending corporate tax subsidies and tax breaks. The City of Chicago should end all corporate tax subsidies and tax breaks to major corporations, and claw back subsidies given to corporations in exchange for job creation if they did not live up to their goals of creating jobs for city residents. This includes tax subsidies from the city’s tax-increment financing (TIF) programs.

In the longer run, Chicago needs structural solutions. This includes:

  • Collective bargaining with Wall Street. The City of Chicago, its related governmental units, and their pension funds should identify financial fees that bear no reasonable relationship to the costs of providing the service and join with other cities in the region and across the country to create a new industry standard for fees and refuse to do business with any bank that does not abide by that standard.
  • Creating a public bank. The City of Chicago should establish a public bank that is owned by taxpayers and can deliver a range of services, including municipal finance, and provide capital for local economic development and affordable housing in Chicago’s neighborhoods.
  • Raising progressive revenue. The City of Chicago should work to raise progressive revenue by instituting measures like a graduated city income tax to force high earners to pay their fair share, a commuter tax on suburban residents who work in the city, and the LaSalle Street Tax on financial transactions at the Chicago Board of Trade and the Chicago Board Options Exchange. All of these likely require state approval, so the mayor would have to petition the state for authorization. California and Minnesota have both enacted progressive revenue measures in recent years that have helped solve their respective budget crises.

These steps will allow Chicago to reclaim power in its relationship with Wall Street and create a financial regime in the city that will put the interests of Chicago’s communities first.