Chicago residents, city officials question motivation of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s gas, public transit giveaways

Fuel Canisters Line Residents House
This residents attempted to elongate the low gas prices by filling fuel canisters rather than faces the truth of the rising gas prices on March 1, 2022. Photo by Mckenzie Richmond.

By Mckenzie Richmond
Medill Reports

The Chicago City Council approved Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s controversial gas and public transit card giveaway, Chicago Moves, on April 27, despite reservations from city officials and residents who said they suspect Lightfoot is misusing taxpayer money to help her reelection campaign.

According to the City Hall website, recipients of the preloaded gas and public transit cards will be chosen through a lottery set to be conducted the second week of each month, May through September, though distribution has not begun. Applications for the program opened May 4. Applicants must submit their applications by the first day of the month to be considered for that month’s lottery.

Lightfoot has yet to make an official reelection announcement, though in an April interview with the Chicago Sun-Times she stated she intends to seek a second term, which had aldermen questioning whether the giveaway is an election-year publicity stunt or an honest proposal to assist struggling residents.

“I think it’s a misuse of our tax dollars,” Vince Vena, a longtime Chicago resident, said. “It puts a band-aid over the real problem of economic inequality and poorly pretends to mend the broken infrastructure of impoverished communities in Chicago.”

The approved measure is Lightfoot’s second attempt to respond to rising gas prices. Initially, she proposed to cut the city’s gas tax from 8 cents a gallon to 5 cents, but the City Council Finance Committee rejected the proposal. According to reporting from the Illinois Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research organization prioritizing the voice of Illinois taxpayers, the proposed tax break could have saved drivers an estimated $18 million at the pump in 2022.

The giveaway measure puts aside $12.5 million in city funds to go toward 50,000 prepaid cards that will each cover $150 worth of gas, along with 100,000 passes that will cover $50 worth of CTA rides.

On April 27, the City Council voted 26-23 to approve Lightfoot’s measure, which largely mimics the gas giveaways self-funded by Willie Wilson, a perennial Chicago mayoral candidate who is running again in the 2023 race. Wilson endorsed Lightfoot during her 2019 runoff but has since been critical of her overall mayorship, including her order to close churches during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic or fine them if they declined, her vaccination requirement for Chicago city officials and her lack of focus on ending violence.

Wilson finished fifth in the 2019 mayoral election, with 10.6% of the vote. Lightfoot finished first with 17.5% of votes, leading to a runoff against Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who had come in second. Lightfoot emerged victorious in the runoff.

Wilson “gave away millions of dollars of free gas at select locations a couple weeks ago,” Joseph Bryza, long-time Chicago suburb resident, said a couple of days after Lightfoot’s measure passed. “Pretty sure he’ll be running against her, so I’m assuming she’s trying to lock down the vote.”

Speculation of Lighfoot’s Chicago Moves program began when the plan presented to the City Council differed from the plan she revealed in a public statement. According to the Chicago Tribune, Lightfoot altered her initial plan, after facing pushback from voters, to appeal to lower-income households. Many believe this was an act to attract more voters.

Lightfoot first said there would be a lottery for the gas and transit cards for Chicago residents 18 or older with an individual income of less than $91,000 or less than $140,000 for a family of four. Residents were limited to one card per household. According to Illinois policy, gas card seekers must also have purchased a valid $96 city sticker.

However, the plan proposed to aldermen limited “the program to those who earn no more than 100% of the area median income, which is $65,300 for an individual or $93,200 for a family of four,” according to WTTW. The limit of one card per household and a valid $96 city sticker for gas card seekers are still requirements.

The measure also prompted questions from Ald. Jason Ervin (28th Ward), who questioned during a council hearing in late March why selected North Side wards were given priority access to the gas cards, ahead of the residents of his poorer West Side ward, which has more limited public transportation options.

In response, Lightfoot altered the program to ensured 75% gas cards go to residents of mobility-challenged neighborhoods

Ald. Walter Burnett (27th Ward) voiced his concern during the council hearing regarding the strict limitation of one card per household, regardless of household size.

Ald. Carlos Ramirez Rosa (35th Ward) told WTTW the proposal was a stunt intended to help Lightfoot win a second term.

Lightfoot declined to respond to the direct speculation during the City Council meeting. She told the council, “some of our neighborhoods have intentionally been starved for no other reason than systemic racism. Should we not address that problem, solve it? We are a city. A city of neighbors,” the Chicago Tribune reported.

Skyler Stams, resident of Chicago’s suburbs, said she and her family have always sensed something “fishy” with Lightfoot’s intentions in office. Now, with Lightfoot’s possible reelection campaign, Stams said she doesn’t feel confident this measure was proposed with honest intentions.

“I don’t know what $125 of gas is gonna do,” Stams said. “That’s like 2.5 tanks for me, and I rarely commute. I think the free public transportation thing is better, but also, why doesn’t the city just lower gas and transportation costs in general rather than giving out $12 million of taxpayers’ funds in gift cards?”

Mckenzie Richmond is a Social Justice graduate student at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @kenziestuvland.