Vallas: Chicago needs tools, transparency for responsible budgeting

Vallas: Chicago needs tools, transparency for responsible budgeting

Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson is continuing the mayoral tradition of giving the City Council and public too little time and too little information before a deficit city budget is passed. There’s little chance that will change soon, but it could be fixed.

Are we genuinely surprised by Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson’s preliminary budget estimate projecting a staggering $538 million deficit in 2024?

It’s reminiscent of Yogi Berra’s famous words: “It’s deja vu all over again.”

Just four years ago, former Mayor Lori Lightfoot revealed a budget deficit far beyond her predecessor’s predictions. And now, Johnson is staring down an estimated $1.9 billion gap for 2026.

Chicago’s government is a one-person show, lacking transparency and accountability. Whether it’s programs, city services or public representation, the mayor’s office wields unchecked power. The most egregious decisions of the past decade – selling city assets, pension “holidays,” controversial tax increment financing expenditures and the city casino debacle – all bore the hallmark of decisions made behind closed doors in the mayor’s office. It’s as if substance-starved legislative rubber-stamping has become Chicago’s governmental signature.

But nothing demonstrates this better than the city budget process itself. The mayor’s office takes about 35 days for the entire core of the budget process, beginning when full proposed numbers for the upcoming year are released. While this is longer than Chicago’s average of 26 days during the past decade, it is on the low end of the typical time it takes other major cities. The 10 largest U.S. cities typically take between one and three months to finalize their budgets, providing more comprehensive information and debate opportunities upfront.
New York City, for instance, releases a preliminary budget and fiscal plan months before a vote, giving ample time for scrutiny. Los Angeles and San Diego follow suit with more transparent and informed processes.

In contrast, Chicago’s Office of Budget and Management provides limited information before the mayor’s budget address in October, leaving the City Council ill-equipped to analyze the proposal’s impact by the time debates begin. Neither the City Council Budget Committee nor Legislative Research Bureau have the staff resources and expertise to effectively examine the budget. Chicago has no capacity to monitor city revenue and spending in real time throughout the year or to independently assess the city’s financial health and proposed and existing city programs and initiatives.
It’s time for Chicago to integrate real transparency and accountability into its finances.

Chicago’s City Council could enact change by:

  • Establishing an independent budget office, or an independent council budget office that has access to all city financial data and is given the staff resources and expertise to evaluate the city budget and programs and to monitor city revenue and spending.
  • Extending that office’s responsibility to provide financial oversight for all departments and agencies under mayoral control, such as the Chicago Public Schools.
  • Mandating public disclosure of budget projections’ underlying methodology and data through a “truth in budgeting” ordinance.
  • Creating a permanent budget schedule that releases the preliminary budget and fiscal plan months before a vote with ample time for public scrutiny and community input.
  • Allowing a city inspector general to have genuine independence. The position’s powers should extend to all departments and agencies, including mayoral-controlled or subsidized agencies. The ordinance allowing the mayor’s office to suppress inspector general reports must be repealed.

Time for a Chicago City Charter, a version of a constitution that outlines city government rules and limitations and is enforced by a citywide referendum.

All these reforms mean little over the long term without a City Council that is willing to make these changes permanent. Without a charter, a city such as Chicago conducts its business according to a municipal code – which remains vulnerable to political whims and short-term objectives.

Chicago cannot address the critical issues of crime, community disinvestment, affordability or failing schools with its current system of governing. The City Council must step up as a co-equal branch of government, prioritizing long-term institutional reform.
But what are the prospects for such changes?

Johnson’s actions and rhetoric and that of his supporters during his first 100 days in office signal little hope for structural reform. Recently, the mayor’s new floor leader made it clear even effort by aldermen to provide the Council Office of Financial Analysis and the Legislative Research Bureau with more resources and staffing to improve transparency and the capacity for independent analysis “is simply not a priority from his colleagues.”

In short, Chicago urgently needs tools and a transparent process to ensure responsible budgeting, long-term financial planning, and effective analysis of city initiatives and programs. This is how we protect taxpayers and invest in the city’s future.

As Yogi Berra aptly put it, “A nickel ain’t worth a dime anymore.”

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