Lightfoot to waive 3-cents-a-gallon gas tax hike temporarily to ease pain at pump

Mayor Lori Lightfoot will roll back her 3-cents-a-gallon gas tax increase until Dec. 31 to provide relief for motorists squeezed by skyrocketing gas prices, even though an influential alderperson warned the temporary break would be viewed as a "political stunt."

Ald. Michelle Harris (8th), the mayor’s City Council floor leader, acknowledged the break that will be up for a vote at Monday’s Finance Committee meeting is a drop in the gas tank when prices are hovering around $5 a gallon.

"Every little bit helps when people are struggling. … If it’s 3 cents on a gallon, that’s 3 cents on a gallon I ain’t got to pay," Harris said. "She’s not eliminating it altogether. She’s just saying that, while things are so horrible financially, she wants to reduce it temporarily."

Finance Committee Chairman Scott Waguespack (32nd) added, "It is mostly helping those people that are in need of saving every penny they can during the price surge."

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The city’s gas tax, currently 8 cents a gallon, generates $64.9 million a year for snow removal, street pavement, bridge maintenance and related personnel costs. Forfeiting the 3 cents a gallon increase for the remainder of the year would cost the city roughly $18 million.

Lightfoot’s 2021 "pandemic budget" raised the tax by 3 cents a gallon, or 60%, on Jan. 1, 2021. The increase had been authorized by the General Assembly when the state’s gas tax was doubled to bankroll Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s $45 billion infrastructure program.

More recently, Pritzker proposed a gas tax freeze.

Over the past two weeks, former mayoral challenger Willie Wilson has held two wildly popular gas giveaways to offer struggling motorists $1.2 million in free gas at $50 a tank.

In February 2019, Wilson won 13 of 18 Black wards on the strength of his charitable giving.

In the runoff that followed, Lightfoot won all of those wards — and swept all 50 wards citywide — after Wilson endorsed her over County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.

Wilson’s endorsement of Lightfoot sent a signal to his older, church-based constituency that, as he put it, "contracts and jobs and schools" were more important than their concerns about Lightfoot being a lesbian.

A few months after Lightfoot took office, Wilson said he had "no relationship with the mayor at all." He accused Lightfoot of ignoring his calls and sending him text messages that said she was "too busy running the city to call me back."

Now, he is talking about reprising his 2019 mayoral run and denying that the gas giveaways are a political prelude.

Against that backdrop, Harris was asked whether the mayor’s motives for the largely symbolic tax waiver are political as Lightfoot prepares for what’s expected to be an uphill battle for a second term.

"I don’t see it as a political, `Hey I’m keeping up with Willie Wilson’ kind of thing. I didn’t attach the two at all. She’s just trying to do something to, temporarily, make things better for folks …. It’s her trying to do something positive," Harris said.

Transportation Committee Chair Howard Brookins (21st) said whether the mayor’s motives are political or not, that’s how it will be viewed.

"People need significant relief. And it is not 3 cents that they’re hurting over. It’s almost a dollar more a gallon that is really hitting people in the pocketbooks," Brookins said.

"I don’t know how we get people that type of relief that would be meaningful. But maybe just 3 cents a gallon would be symbolic and taken by some of the cynics that it is a political ploy. If it was me, I would probably not do it to not feed into the cynicism of the public that you’re just doing something as a political stunt."

Lightfoot has pointedly refused to criticize Wilson’s gas giveaways — even after the first one caused a traffic nightmare.

Instead, she has said she understands the "sticker shock" families are experiencing and that it’s "not just gas prices" that are skyrocketing.

"I’ve talked to residents who are saying, `I can’t afford to fill up my tank. I’m riding on a quarter of a tank. And then, maybe I’ll put a couple more dollars in. That’s not the way people should have to live," the mayor said Thursday.

"We’ve got to figure out a way to do our part to really provide some relief."