I was blindsided when I read in the Nov. 27, 2019 Chicago Tribune that Evanston had added a Reparations Fund to its 2020 Budget. This fund will receive all revenue from the 3% tax on recreational marijuana, up to $10.0 million. The process by which this marijuana tax funding plan was included in Evanston’s 2020 Budget was not fair or transparent.
Evanston is the first and only municipality in the country to enact reparations legislation. Because this issue is both timely and controversial, Evanston residents should have had the opportunity to express their views on these topics before the reparations revenue ordinance (99-O-19) was passed on November 25, 2019. Instead, many Evanston residents were as stunned as I was by the inclusion of reparations and their funding source in the final Budget.
Two community meetings on reparations did occur in July 2019, but they were not sufficiently well-publicized to garner citywide awareness and participation. Funding sources for reparations were mentioned at these meetings but did not include $10 million in City’s sales tax revenue from recreational marijuana sales.
In August, a member of the City Council stated in an interview that “the city’s legal staff will need to address issues about what legal limits there may be on racially targeting the benefits of city programs.” I found no documents on the City’s website which addressed the alderman’s concerns about the legality of the reparations program.
Two days after the Budget was accepted by Council, the Chicago Tribune published an article about Evanston’s reparations fund and the marijuana sales tax which would be used to fund it. Many Evanston residents first learned of both the reparations fund and the cannabis sales tax when they read the Tribune on November 27.
Where in this process was the transparency that Evanston residents have come to expect? It appears that reparations, funded by $10M sales tax revenue on recreational marijuana, was passed in a rather opaque fashion inconsistent with Evanston’s values.
The existence and form of reparations is an unsettled area. Experts have widely opposing views. Indeed, Dr. William Darity, Jr., an African-American professor at Duke, one of the foremost scholars on reparations, wrote, “I have little enthusiasm for local reparations projects, regardless of how they are funded. I think piecemeal reparations at the municipal level . . . are a deflection from a comprehensive, national program of restitution. I just don’t think initiatives like the one in [Evanston] are a good idea.”
Dr. Darity’s statement highlights the complexity of the issue. Certainly this timely and controversial issue deserves a more thoughtful, educational, well-publicized and inclusive process than it has received in Evanston.