CHICAGO (CN) — The City Council narrowly approved Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot's proposal for a $12.5 million gas card giveaway on Wednesday, following heated debate in the council chamber. The plan passed 26-23, with representatives of both the city's conservative and socialist blocs voting against it.
The giveaway, dubbed "Chicago Moves" by Lightfoot's office, allows city residents making at or below the local household median income to apply for a pre-paid gas or public transit card. The $12.5 million fund sets aside $7.5 million for 50,000 gas cards worth $150 each, while the other $5 million will fund 100,000 pre-paid public transit cards worth $50 each. Three-fourths of both sets of cards will be reserved for those living in what the city calls "high mobility hardship community areas," mostly low-income neighborhoods on Chicago's West and South Sides. The remaining 25% of the cards will be available to residents living in any part of the city.
Lightfoot first announced her Chicago Moves plan in March, following several million dollar gas giveaways by local philanthropist and 2023 mayoral candidate Willie Wilson. In City Hall, it sparked accusations that the giveaway is an attempt by Lightfoot to shore up votes as next February's election looms, though she has not yet officially announced her intent to run for reelection.
“To say it comes off as a gimmick would be an understatement,” the city's 15th Ward Alderman Raymond Lopez, another 2023 mayoral candidate, said before the vote.
Wilson himself called the proposal a "political stunt" by Lightfoot in late March.
Lightfoot herself denied these accusations.
"The suggestion that it's a stunt, it's a gimmick, it's, the mayor's political, let's put all that nonsense aside," Lightfoot told the City Council on Wednesday.
Critics also said the move was a one-time, unsustainable solution to a systemic lack of safe and affordable transportation in many areas of the city, and balked that the mayor wanted to further subsidize gas when just last month the City Council voted to move away from fossil fuels.
"The gas is gonna burn up. We just divested from fossil fuels," 49th Ward Alderwoman Maria Hadden said.
The city's transportation issues "won't be solved by a one-time gas card give away that will go to less than 2% of Chicago residents," 35th Ward Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa also wrote on social media as councilmembers debated the issue. The city itself estimated that about 8% of city residents would benefit from the program.
Several members urged that the $12.5 million earmarked for the giveaway instead be diverted to the Chicago Transit Authority, which maintains the city's public buses and commuter trains, or be used to fund affordable housing programs in the city's impoverished neighborhoods.
"If we're bound and determined to spend 12 and a half million dollars while we're just months away from our budget meetings, I'd argue plow it all into CTA and target it toward safety," 42nd Ward Alderman Brendan Reilly said, arguing more Chicagoans would use public transportation if they felt as safe on buses and trains as they do in their cars.
Proponents of the vote, however, said it would give impoverished city residents relief from rising gas prices, which as of Wednesday hovered at an average $4.79 across the city. Emma Mitts, alderwoman for the 37th Ward and a supporter of the giveaway, criticized its opponents as being blinded by their own relative privilege.
"Who in this room that can't afford to go and get themselves some gas? Who?" Mitts asked her fellow councilmembers rhetorically, also adding, "We're talking about providing some help for folks trying to get to the daycare... You all may not understand or maybe you forgot, those days when people need that help."
Lightfoot further dismissed the bill's environmental critics as idealists, saying that "back on planet reality, a lot of folks have to drive."
"I've met a lot of people all over the city who have come to me and said, 'mayor, I cannot afford to fill up my tank'... and we're here at the end of April, we know what happens every summer. The gas prices are going to go up again," Lightfoot said.
She also said that the giveaway was only one element of a broader effort to provide more direct economic aid to city residents. That economic aid includes a universal basic income pilot program, for which the city began accepting applications on Monday. The Chicago Public School District also started a free wi-fi program for low-income student families in 2020.
“Are we solving every problem with this? Of course not,” the mayor said. "It's a modest program."
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