Johnson’s $1.25 billion bond plan advances, then gets delayed by a mayoral ally

Mayor Brandon Johnson’s ambitious $1.25 billion bond plan advanced to the full City Council Wednesday after previously being held up by opponents, only to get stalled by a mayoral ally once it got there.

Johnson bond plan delayed in City Council

The mayor’s proposal to raise funds earmarked for housing, job growth and cultural projects had been scheduled for a vote in the city’s Finance Committee Monday, but that was tabled amid an attempt to undercut the plan with significant changes. Similar challenges surfaced again Wednesday, but the plan nonetheless passed Finance in a 20 to 9 vote.

The high-dollar investment effort was then set to face a council vote Wednesday afternoon. But it was ultimately delayed by Johnson’s handpicked Finance chair Ald. Pat Dowell, 3rd, a supporter of the plan. Her move prevented opponents of the bond deal from using the parliamentary move to block it themselves.

The hold-up will likely be brief: the ordinance is expected to instead face an up-or-down vote at a council meeting Friday.

After the plan advanced in committee, Dowell touted amendments adding accountability measures to the plan, including clearer guidelines for investment applicants, more frequent progress reports and a $5 million threshold at which projects funded by the bond require council approval.

“I believe it will pass City Council and I think this compromise provides the City Council more oversight and transparency,” Dowell said.

As part of the plan, the city would pay off $2.4 billion in accumulated debt through 2061 by using property tax revenues that would become available thanks to expiring tax increment financing, or TIF, districts.

The plan faced a challenge Wednesday from downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly, 42nd. Reilly proposed the threshold to require council approval be lowered from $5 million to $1 million. The proposed amendment echoed another made Monday by Ald. Bill Conway, 34th. In addition to calling for a lowered threshold, Conway called for the total bond amount to be lowered from $1.25 billion to $350 million.

“I understand that the administration is bound and determined to issue $1.25 billion in bonds. I’m willing to let that go,” Reilly told fellow aldermen Wednesday. “But I do think this body has a responsibility to provide adequate oversight on the expenditure of these funds.”

Reilly’s amendment was rejected in a 16 to 12 vote that effectively prevented discussion on the matter. Ald. Anthony Beale, 9th, shouted his protest when he was not allowed to ask questions about the proposal by Dowell, calling the move “unbelievable.”

Beale accused Johnson’s administration of stifling discussion to push the bond plan through the committee.

“They’re trying to silence people,” he said. “They don’t want people asking pertinent questions about what’s really going on down here.”

The bond plan has so far come up in a full City Council meeting where it was introduced, a Rules Committee meeting where aldermen voted to advance it to the Finance Committee, two special Finance Committee meetings and two additional Finance Committee meetings with scheduled votes on the matter.

But Dowell defended the committee’s vote to keep the threshold at $5 million. Most similar deals that come before the City Council involve over $5 million, she said. The $1 million threshold would have only “added more tape” to the city’s long housing development process, she said.

“It slows down the development process and we’re really trying to speed up the development process,” Dowell said.

Many projects seeking investment will also face City Council scrutiny in other committees during the development project, she said.

Ald. Nicole Lee, 11th, said the mayor’s office has made many calls to aldermen regarding the bond plan. She had hoped the threshold would be lowered to $1 million, but still voted to advance the plan Wednesday. The investment money is too desperately needed to let it stall, she said.

“I am interested in more oversight. I think $5 million is a high threshold,” she said. “But I’m not prepared to hold it up.”