CAPITOL RECAP: More grants start flowing to businesses hurt by pandemic

By Capitol News Illinois

SPRINGFIELD – Gov. JB Pritzker’s administration on Thursday, Sept. 30, announced the awarding of the first $24 million in “Back to Business” grants, a program funded with federal relief aid to help businesses recover and reopen from the pandemic.

The announcement took place at a Mexican restaurant in the Little Village neighborhood of Chicago, Mi Tierra en la Villita, which was awarded a $150,000 grant.

The Back to Business, or B2B grant program, administered through the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, will provide a total of $250 million in aid to small businesses that have experienced losses during the pandemic. The funds come from the federal American Rescue Plan Act and can be used for such things as rehiring staff and paying other operating expenses.

Grant amounts can range from $5,000 to $150,000, depending on the amount of losses a business experienced. Preference is given to businesses with $5 million or less in annual revenue as well as those that did not receive funding under the previous Business Interruption Grant, or BIG program.

“After the success of last year's Business Interruption Grants, which provided $290 million in relief to over 9,000 small businesses across our state, it was clear that these investments have had a big impact,” Pritzker said.

Applications for the remaining funds will remain open through Oct. 13. More information about the program and a link to an online application form can be found on the DCEO website.

Of the grants announced Thursday, 81 percent went to businesses that applied to the BIG program but did not receive funding; 71 percent went to businesses in disproportionately impacted areas or low-income zip codes that experienced high rates of COVID-19; 66 percent went to hard-hit industries such as restaurants and taverns, hotels, arts organizations and salons; and just over half went to minority-owned businesses.

To encourage more businesses to apply, Sylvia Garcia, acting director of DCEO, said the agency has recruited a network of “navigators” to help steer businesses through the application process.

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COMMUNITY COLLEGE IMPACT: Illinois community colleges have a multi-billion dollar impact on the state’s economy, according to a new report from the Northern Illinois University Center for Governmental Studies.

The Illinois Community Colleges’ Economic Impacts and Student Employment Outcomes report said the indirect economic output tied to community colleges in 2020 was $3.5 billion. Directly, the state’s 48 community colleges employed 32,867 individuals in 2020 at a total combined salary of $1.3 billion.

An investment in a completed associate degree is worth $238,000, according to the report, meaning someone completing a degree can expect to earn that much more over 40 years than if they did not.

That’s factoring in an assumed cost of $31,883 for the degree, including tuition and other expenses as well as “opportunity” cost, which includes time spent at school instead of work.

Brian Richard, one of the study’s authors from NIU’s Center for Governmental Studies, said at a news conference Wednesday, Sept. 27, the report is based on actual earnings of graduates, rather than just national averages.

A degree or even a short-term, narrow certificate can lead to higher wages and more likely long-term employment, said Brian Durham, executive director of the ICCB.

“More than 84 percent of graduates with a long-term certificate or an (associate of applied science degree) are employed in jobs in their chosen career field within a year of graduation,” he said. “And five years after graduation, graduates with an associate's degree who then transfer to a four-year institution have employment rates of 85 percent.”

For those that earn short-term certificates, Durham said electrical and power transmission installers can earn close to $70,000, while those going into the field of fire protection can earn more than $54,000. Heating and air conditioning jobs can pay more than $48,000, while various other programs can lead to salaries for $36,000 to almost $44,000, depending on the program.

Attendees also praised the state’s Workforce Equity Initiative, an annual investment of $18.7 million from the ICCB which “allows colleges to remove barriers to student success, which may include free tuition, childcare, transportation, and educational supplies” for minority populations in at-risk communities, according to its website.

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OBAMA CENTER: Former President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama returned to their old neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side on Tuesday, Sept. 26, to officially break ground on the Obama Presidential Center, a project they hope will become a hub for the development of new leadership and an economic boost to a long-neglected part of the city.

“Chicago is where almost everything that is most precious to me began,” the former president said. “It's where I found a home.”

The center is being developed on a 19.3-acre site in Chicago’s Jackson Park, in a location just a few blocks from where the Obamas were married and the hospital where their two daughters were born. It is also on a site that once housed part of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition.

The Obamas were joined at the ceremony by Gov. JB Pritzker, who noted that the center will be the second presidential museum in Illinois after the Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield.

The center will be operated separately from the Obama Presidential Library, which is administered by the National Archives and Records Administration, a federal agency. The center will be operated privately by a nonprofit foundation.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot noted that the city will also invest some $200 million into improvements in Jackson Park as well as the surrounding neighborhood to provide more amenities and rehabilitate many of the homes in the area.

Unlike many presidential centers that serve primarily as static museums to a former president, Obama said he wants it to be a cultural and educational center that will help foster new leadership for the community and the nation.

The center is expected to open in 2025.

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PRITZKER SIGNS MAPS: Despite opposition from Republicans as well as reform groups, Gov. JB Pritzker on Friday, Sept. 24, signed into law the revised state legislative district maps that lawmakers passed in August, opening the door to almost certain court challenges.

“These legislative maps align with the landmark Voting Rights Act and will help ensure Illinois’ diversity is reflected in the halls of government,” Pritzker said in a statement.

But not everyone agrees that the maps do reflect the state’s diversity. The political action arm of the reform group CHANGE Illinois issued a statement arguing that they actually dilute minority voting power.

“Many major groups agree the new maps reduce the numbers of majority Black voting age population districts and majority Latino voting age population districts,” the group said in a statement. “The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund’s lawyers have said they believe the state representative and Senate maps dilute Latino voting power. The Latino Policy Forum asked Pritzker to veto the maps for the same reason. Illinois African Americans for Equitable Redistricting also said the maps do not create enough Black majority voting age districts.”

Lawmakers initially adopted maps during the spring legislative session in order to meet the state constitution’s June 30 deadline, despite the fact that they didn’t yet have the official, detailed U.S. Census data needed to draw districts with nearly equal population.

Republican leaders, as well as the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, or MALDEF, quickly filed a federal lawsuit in Chicago arguing that they were unconstitutional because they were based on population estimates from survey data rather than official census numbers.

When the official numbers finally came out in mid-August, they did in fact show that population variances between districts were far outside what is allowed under U.S. constitutional law, prompting Democratic leaders to call a special session to adjust the new maps.

Republicans argue, however, that those maps were passed well after the state constitution’s June 30 deadline and, therefore, the task should be given to a bipartisan commission, a process in which Republicans would have a 50-50 chance of gaining a partisan advantage.

That decision will ultimately be up to the courts.


Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government and distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.