Lightfoot's $12M gas and transit card giveaway narrowly approved by committee

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s plan to have Chicago taxpayers foot the bill for a $12.5 million giveaway of gasoline and transit rides won approval Wednesday from a City Council committee.

Lightfoot calls the commuter assistance plan "Chicago Moves." A couple earning up to $75,000 would be eligible, as would a family of four making up to $93,000 a year.

Lightfoot plans for the giveaway to continue through the summer. Meanwhile, August is when candidates will begin collecting voter signatures on mayoral nominating petitions.

Some City Council members see better uses for the money, such as a program to help senior citizens replace broken heating furnaces. It’s currently out of funds.

Ald. Anthony Beale (9th Ward), asked, "What's more important? A senior that doesn't have heat or to give out free gas cards as a promotional gimmick for a re-election campaign?"

Lightfoot is responding to rival Willie Wilson, who launched his own campaign for mayor earlier this month. A wealthy philanthropist, he’s gotten nationwide attention by giving away $2.5 million worth of free gasoline in the Chicago area.

Wilson is planning another, privately-funded giveaway this weekend. 

"Willie Wilson's coming out of his own pocket with his own money, whereas what's being proposed here is spending the taxpayers' dollars to do the same," said Alderman Andre Vasquez, 40th Ward.

A mock-up of one of the tens of thousands of gas cards that would be distributed through a lottery system if Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s "Chicago Moves" plan is approved by the City Council. (City of Chicago)

Lightfoot proposes to give away 50,000 gas cards worth up to $150 and 100,000 CTA Ventra cards worth up to $50 each. More than 75% of the giveaways would go to minority neighborhoods said to be facing "mobility hardship."

The remaining 25 percent will be distributed through a citywide lottery "in equal portions to each ward," officials said.

The 15-12 committee vote signals the roll call could be close again next week, when the full City Council is expected to consider the measure.

Ald. Susan Sadlowski-Garza (10th), a former mayoral ally who has turned into an outspoken critic, joined the parade of "no" votes.

Sadlowski-Garza argued $93,000 for a family of four was a "pretty good chunk of change to be giving people" a card that allows them to "fill up twice and it’s over." She argued the money would be better spent on mental health, homelessness and eliminating food deserts.

Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) added violence prevention to that list, and pleaded with Dowell to no avail to hold the ordinance in committee.

"I can’t support this when there are so many more needs in this city," Hairston said.


Black Caucus Chairman Jason Ervin (28th) led the charge for the mayor’s giveaway after Lightfoot heeded his call to earmark most of the money for "transportation challenged" communities like his own.

"We need to help those that need help the most. … This is a small way to help some of our most challenged residents," he said.

"If we help people get to work, that’s one less person trying to rob somebody."

Ald. Derrick Curtis (18th) was not appeased by Chief Financial Officer Jennie Huang Bennett’s claim that one-third of all Chicago households would be eligible for the free gas and mass transit cards.

"If everyone can’t get a piece of the pie, no one should," Curtis said.

Transportation Committee Chairman Howard Brookins (21st) likened the dilemma facing the City Council to divvying up five cupcakes in a classroom of 30 students.

"If we cut it all up and give everybody some, people will say, `You gave me crumbs,’" Brookins said, applauding "how this program has evolved."

Willie Wilson has taken aim at Lightfoot’s conveyor belt of giveaways — including gas cards, mass transit cards, bicycles, security cameras, motion detectors and guarantee basic income checks.

"I thought it was against the law to give away the taxpayers’ dollars for political purposes," Wilson told the Sun-Times last week.

"I gave my own money out of my own pocket. It wasn’t taxpayers’ dollars."

Earlier this week, Lightfoot had an answer for those who believe she’s trying to one-up Wilson and curry favor with voters as she gears up for, what’s expected to be an uphill battle for a second term.

"I would just point them to the $6-per-gallon for regular that people are experiencing all over the city. The fact of the matter is gas prices have skyrocketed. And for working families in particular — working individuals — I’ve heard it everywhere I go that people are really trying to ration their budgets because they can’t afford to fill up their gas tanks," the mayor said.

"There is an urgent need and we’re being responsive to the need that we see across the city."

The Sun-Times Media Wire contributed to this report.