CHICAGO — Aldermen on Wednesday took several zaps at Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s proposal to give away $150 gas cards and $50 public transit cards, laying another bump in the road for her plan to help Chicagoans deal with rising fuel costs. The plan did not advance on Wednesday, putting its implementation in flux.
The legislative language of Lightfoot’s proposal, which she announced last week, was not posted publicly as of Wednesday afternoon as aldermen in the City Council Committee on Budget and Government Operations grilled city officials on the plan’s details. Ald. Pat Dowell (3), who chairs the budget committee, announced during the meeting the discussion was being conducted as a subject matter hearing and that there would be no vote on the proposal.
Lightfoot last week announced a plan to give away $150 gas cards to 50,000 residents and $50 CTA fare cards to 100,000 residents, 75,000 of which are set to be distributed based on geographic area.
When Lightfoot first announced her proposal, households earning up to 140 percent of the area median income, or $130,480 for a family of four, were set to be eligible for the giveaway. But the ordinance city officials presented to aldermen on Wednesday set the household income qualifier at or below 100 percent of the area median income.
The change came amid feedback city officials heard through aldermanic briefings on the proposal and “ultimately through that feedback, we created a greater equity lens,” the city’s Chief Financial Officer Jennie Huang Bennett told aldermen on Wednesday.
City officials also clarified that eligible Chicagoans will be able to receive either a $150 gas card or a $50 public transit card, but not both. And 75,000 of the transit cards are set to go to residents in prioritized community areas facing “higher mobility hardship” — generally neighborhoods on the city’s West, South and Southeast sides, officials said.
The remaining 25,000 fare card recipients would be chosen based on a monthly lottery, and applications submitted in earlier rounds would be eligible for later rounds, according to city officials.
Additionally, Bennett told aldermen each of the city’s 50 wards would get the same number of gas cards for residents, but the physical cards would be distributed by Chicago Public Library locations and social service agencies.
Funding for the $12.5 million program is set to come from “one-time funds” the city has “identified through additional sweeping of aging revenue accounts,” Bennett said.
Ald. Brendan Reilly (42), who often supports Lightfoot’s proposals, said the plan “doesn’t feel right” because it is “essentially providing a subsidy for gasoline usage. Big Oil is still getting paid, and they’re not helping us much with their pricing.”
And after Chicagoans use the gas cards on two tanks of gas, “we have not much to show for it except a bit more carbon in the air.”
“This seems to me like we’re just going to be literally burning up $12.5 million to very short-term relief without really getting to the root causes of the issue,” Reilly said.
The gas giveaway portion of the proposal seems like it is competing against CTA, Reilly said. “I always thought that the value of public transit was really to try and get more cars off the road and more people on transit, and I do like that component of this program,” but he pointed out it is still limited and based on a lottery.
“We’ve got major safety challenges” on the CTA, Reilly said, suggesting the program dollars could “be better spent…improving safety on the trains.” Reilly added that the funding could be used “to increase public confidence in our transit system, especially when it comes to safety.”
Ald. David Moore (17) said he wants to support the ordinance but can’t. “It’s not going to get the people that I really feel that it needs to hit, and it’s not listening to the residents” and their needs, he said, adding that the money should instead be going to homeowners “to help them stay in their homes.”
Responding to a question from Dowell, Bennett said city officials are looking at ways to restrict the gas card program from “bad actor” gas stations and those that have racked up violations with the city.
Ald. Daniel La Spata (1) asked why there are “such different numbers” in how much the city is planning to load onto gas cards versus transit fare cards. Bennett told aldermen the difference has to do with the cost differential between gas and transit.
A handful of aldermen questioned the motive and timing of Lightfoot’s proposal, with Ald Walter Burnett (27) bluntly asking: “This is not a reaction to Willie [Wilson] is it?”
Wilson, a businessman and former mayoral candidate, gave away more than $1 million in gas at local gas stations last month. He has said he plans to announce on Monday whether he will run for mayor in 2023.
Bennett repeatedly tried to quash the notion that Lightfoot’s proposal was a reaction to Wilson, saying the plan is for transit and gas cards “to help support mobility across the city.”
Ald. Andre Vasquez (40) said he thinks Lightfoot’s proposal is different from Wilson’s efforts.
“Willie Wilson is coming out of pocket, whereas we’re looking at taxpayer dollars… if anything, [the city’s plan is] a little more concerning because of that,” he said.
Vasquez also used the opportunity to take aim at another controversial plan of Lightfoot’s that lowered the threshold to 6 miles per hour for the city to issue speeding tickets in areas near schools and parks with cameras.
“If we’re talking about saving drivers money, couldn’t you just repeal the speed cameras?” Vasquez said. “Because that would lead to a lot less people having to pay, and you wouldn’t have to pay $12.5M to do it.”