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West Side Lives

Kennedy Bartley of United Working Families explains Mayor Lightfoot's budget proposal

November 20th, 2020 11:28 AM

Kennedy Bartley, the legislative director for United Working Families. | Isiah ThoughtPoet Veney

Corli Jay/City Bureau

This week's West Side Lives was produced by our partners at City Bureau.  

The City Council will vote on Chicago's 2021 budget soon after wrapping up a contentious month of budget hearings. 

This budget season United Working Families legislative director Kennedy Bartley has worked hard to make public policy information more accessible to working-class communities as a lobbyist, policymaker and organizer. UWF is a political organization that supports progressive candidates and causes. Bartley's day can range from rubbing elbows at a coalition meeting and penning a policy brief, to whipping votes for a piece of legislation in City Council. Part of that work is helping the general public understand policies and decisions that impact our daily lives.

Bartley spoke with City Bureau on the budget process and how next year's budget may ultimately impact Chicago's working-class Black and brown communities. 

What's your role in the city's annual budget process?    

United Working Families wants to make the entire budget process more accessible, participatory and democratic. So that means breaking down what's going on with the budget and hosting policy meetings on the budget where everyone's welcome to join. We also turn the budget proposal into graphics and whatnot, that allows the information to be more accessible in layman's terms. 

Mayor Lightfoot's budget proposal includes laying off city employees and raising property taxes so the city can close the billion-dollar budget gap. In your opinion, what are some other ways the city could make up for the deficit?  

I would defund the police, which makes up 40% of the corporate fund, then tax the rich and require nonprofits that are tax-exempt to pay a lump sum of money in lieu of taxes. I would also implement vacancy taxes that would de-incentivize big developers from leaving properties vacant, especially in the midst of a housing crisis. Plus, I would include a corporate head tax, a luxury goods and service tax and a LaSalle Street tax [on the trading of financial assets such as stocks and bonds]. These are all progressive forms of revenue that don't focus on austerity measures. 

As the city anticipates this historic deficit, what kind of impact do you think next year's budget will have on West and South Side communities? 

Under neoliberal administrations, which privatize the public sector, large deficits typically result in austerity by way of cuts to spending for social services and layoffs. This disproportionately affects Black and brown families, and typically these austerity budgets are balanced on the backs of the working class. So I foresee spending cuts to social services in the 2021 budget negatively affecting poor, working-poor and working-class folks.

Last week, the mayor reportedly told City Council's Black Caucus that if they didn't support her budget, she won't prioritize their wards, according to the Chicago Tribune. 

The fact that healthy dissent and advocacy for an equitable budget results in threats of violent anti-Blackness is a nod to Mayor Lightfoot's belief that City Council legislators shouldn't act independently of her agenda. 

[According to that Tribune article,] she has also decided to attach the Welcoming City ordinance to a budget…using a prolonged struggle for immigrant protections and rights as a political pawn. It is disrespectful to the communities that deserve to be centered in our politics and governing and attempts to pit oppressed communities against one another.

The federal government hasn't been able to pass a second round of COVID-19 relief funds. What's at stake if President-elect Biden doesn't bring federal relief to Chicago? 

It will result in increases to regressive taxation [taxes that disproportionately impact poor people] because we have to fill that gap. And again, we are under a neoliberal and austere administration with Mayor Lightfoot. The city of Chicago relies heavily on LaSalle Street and Wall Street—that's who we are essentially beholden to. Without federal relief, that gives the Lightfoot administration further excuses to rely on the Ken Griffins of the world to to fund our vital services and to fund our communities, whilst also being the purveyor of the harm to those communities.

Speaking of Ken Griffin, he spent $54 million opposing the Illinois tax amendment that would have allowed higher tax rates on high-income families. It did not pass. What are your thoughts?

He put more money into [ads opposing] the 'Fair Tax' amendment than he would have to pay in additional taxes by paying his fair share. I don't blame [the failure of the amendment on] the working-class folks. The way that it was even written, it never even said, "This is the 'Fair Tax' amendment." And the fact that if you skip the question, that [may be] an automatic no [depending on how the vote totals turn out], or that it was just bogged down in legalese—it was made inaccessible.

City Council will soon vote on Lightfoot's proposed 2021 budget. What role do aldermen play in representing their communities in the budget process? 

Aldermen have a duty to their constituents to make the budget process as participatory and democratic as possible.In terms of City Council, we are in a better position than we have been in a very long time. We see aldermen acting independent of the mayor, not being rubber stamps and acting like true legislators, doing their jobs sticking up for their communities—namely the freshmen alderpeople that are United Working Families electeds. 

The city released the results of its budget survey, revealing that the majority of respondents were from the North Side and West Side participation ranked lowest. What steps do you think the city can take to reach and listen to West Side communities in the budget process? 

We need to make sure that community organizations on the South and West Sides are well-funded, and therefore able to be a resource for folks seeking to be civically engaged.I appreciate the transparency of the city revealing this data, especially with it being revealed that 87% of survey respondents wanted to defund the police and instead fund social services.

With all the outreach in the world, if there is a deep seated distrust of government, then folks aren't going to engage with government in the first place. So I don't think that this is a question of, how does the city best engage with the West and South Sides during the budget season? Instead, it's: How does the city best engage with the West and South sides? Period. 

How could the budget process be more democratic? 

The Chicago Teachers Union makes the public very aware of budget negotiations when they're happening, and when they go on strike the public is a member of the audience. However, [for the city's budget] it is more of a negotiation between the mayor and [departments]. City Council isn't as involved, so that makes public engagement a little more difficult.

Budget decision-making should happen on a ward-by-ward basis, like when aldermen get their menu money, not all of them make the spending of that money democratic or participatory. Another way the city budget can be made more democratic is by directly seeing the results of the city-wide surveys actually reflected in the mayor's budget proposal.

Despite a growing grassroots movement that demands the defunding of Chicago police, our reporting showed that the police budget cut proposed by Lightfoot is minimal compared to the rest of the city's budget. Is defunding the police possible in a city like Chicago? 

It's possible but it is a question of political will and priorities. It's a question of white supremacy and a question of anti-Blackness and harm. It's possible but it's made difficult under the racist and harmful structures that we're currently under. That's where that distrust of government comes into play. Because people are like, you know, we never see ourselves or our needs reflected in the budget priorities. 

This report was produced by City Bureau, a civic journalism lab based in Bronzeville. For more stories on the 2021 budget, visit citybureau.org/budget.

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