CHICAGO - Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel skirted questions about whether he's pinning too much hope on getting state government help to deliver his plan to cover escalating pension costs.
Emanuel's plan to phase in what would end up a record $543 million annual property tax increase over four years doesn't directly rely on state legislation but the city is banking on approval for two key pieces.
During an interview on the local WTTW program Chicago Tonight, Emanuel was asked: "Aren't you pinning a lot of hopes on what's coming out of Springfield?"
Emanuel countered by defending his proposed homeowners' exemption and the reasons behind why it should pass.
"It's never been controversial and it shouldn't be controversial this time," he said.
Emanuel's plan also assumes that the state government - paralyzed by a war between the Democratic majorities in the legislature and Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner -- signs off on a plan to reduce the mandate for increased public safety contributions to $328 million in the first year from $550 million.
Emanuel also wants to dramatically expand an existing homeowner's property tax exemption that would hold harmless homes at or below the median city home value of $250,000. The provision is considered key to selling homeowners on the plan, but it's strongly opposed by the business community.
Analysts and investors have raised concerns over whether the city can succeed in getting the state on board given the Springfield quagmire that has left the state without a budget for almost three months with no sign of a compromise.
Lawmakers have approved legislation to reduce the city's pension contributions, but haven't sent it to Rauner.
The homeowner's exemption received its first state hearing Thursday although the city has yet to submit actual legislation. The General Assembly's Democratic majority has voiced support and Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, will sponsor the plan but the Rauner administration has declined to comment.
Emanuel stressed to WTTW that the proposed property tax hike is driven by the need to meet a 2010 state mandate that takes effect in 2016 to stabilize public safety pension funds statewide. His expanded exemption allows the city to meet its obligation in a "way that's fair and equitable" and protects seniors, and lower and mid-income homeowners, he said.
When the interviewer made the point that the governor has expressed a willingness to support city pension proposals but only if Emanuel uses his political leverage to persuade Democrats to pass Rauner's policy initiatives, Emanuel would say only that Rauner is "willing to hold people in Chicago hostage" for his own policies.
"These things aren't controversial….Springfield has become so dysfunctional," Emanuel added, saying he's not relying on the state to tackle the city's pension mess. "We are doing the hard work of righting our financial ship."
Emanuel's deputy mayor, Steven Koch, outlined the city's goal in pursuing the higher homeowner's exemption - now set at $7,000 -- even as the actual legislation remains a work in progress with negotiations with lawmakers ongoing over the details.
Koch told lawmakers the budget proposal and tax plan would put the city on strong fiscal path forward. The exemption increase would be aimed at "holding harmless" homeowners with properties valued at $250,000 or below, although homes valued at a higher level would still benefit just at a declining level based on their home's value. Lower valued homes could actually see a tax decrease.
Business and commercial property groups attacked the exemption plan during the hearing arguing they already pay more than double a rate over residential properties and can't afford to stomach the burden given other strains. Retail businesses face added expense due a plastic bag ban and an increased minimum wage.
"Businesses already pay more than their fair share," said Michael Reever, vice president of government affairs for the Chicago Chamber of Commerce.