Illinois lawmaker calls clawback in COVID-19 grant program ‘abuse of power’

(The Center Square) – The first public hearing of the Restore Illinois Collaborative Commission focused on grants of federal dollars the Pritzker administration is administering to businesses. But one aspect of the program was labeled “abuse of power” by a commission member.

Tuesday’s hearing also gave the public a glimpse of what Republicans have characterized as short and unproductive meetings.

The hearing lasted about 70 minutes with about half the time for questions from lawmakers. The other half was a presentation about federal funds being administered to businesses through the Business Interruption Grant program.

The grants for businesses are being managed by the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. Agency officials said a third party vendor helping facilitate the application process cost around $1 million. Of $270 million available, there’s about $130 million left to distribute.

DCEO Assistant Director Michael Negron said if grant recipients don’t follow the governor’s executive orders, the grants ranging from $5,000 to $150,000 could be clawed back.

“It’s something that the state is trying to communicate that in order to get the economy on a path to recovery and in order to save lives we’ve got to get the virus under control, and that requires certain measures,” Negron said.

State Rep. Dan Caulkins, R-Decatur, said that’s “government overreach and abuse of power.”

“For you to put in your contract that these businesses have to follow executive orders with no level of certainty of what those orders might be and then face clawback, it rubs me quite wrongly,” Caulkins said.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker has been issuing consecutive orders for months, unilaterally changing guidelines and tiered mitigation metrics that could trigger more regulations one way or another.

A recent report from TrackTheRecovery.org shows 35.4 percent of small businesses in Illinois that are open decreased since January 2020.

Caulkins said the governor’s orders are “bludgeoning” small businesses.

It’s unclear when the next hearing will be, and whether it’ll be public. Tuesday was the first public hearing of the group since it started this summer. It’s set to disband at the end of the month, by law.

After Tuesday’s public hearing, state Rep. Mike Murphy, R-Springfield, said it was typical to closed-door hearings, but they were given a few more minutes to ask questions. That’s not been the case in previous closed-door meetings, he said.

“I’m talking about IDES, meetings like that I don’t think have been productive,” Murphy said. “It’s very similar to what happened today … mainly it was a PowerPoint presentation and some questions answered.”

Murphy for months has been calling for public hearings about unemployment issues with the Illinois Department of Employment Security.

State Rep. Stephanie Kifowit, D-Oswego, who’s on the Restore commission and chair of the committee that oversees IDES, has said they can’t have public hearings during COVID-19 and virtual hearings were not authorized in the Democratic-controlled legislature.

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