(The Center Square) – While Chicago and Illinois counties with half a million people or more get to control most of nearly $5 billion in federal funds amid COVID-19 relief efforts, a group of associations said Thursday the Pritzker administration is taking such control away from other local governments. 

The funding battle comes as one business owner said he's running thin.

Downtown Springfield restaurateur Peter Praia opened Di Piero’s on the plaza of the Old State Capitol a number of weeks before the pandemic began.

“We didn’t have enough sales history to get any kind of help from any organization so we’ve just been for four months, we’ve been on our own,” Praia said.

Brad Cole with the Illinois Municipal League said a federal program passed months ago with around $800 million for local governments across Illinois could help such businesses, but he said the Pritzker administration stripped the economic stimulus decisions from the local governments.

“Let’s keep the money locally, let’s not reallocate it,” Cole said. “Let’s give it to local officials so they can spend it on local businesses for local purposes so that we can keep local businesses thriving.”

The Illinois Municipal League joined with the Illinois Retail Merchants Association and the Illinois Manufacturers' Association in Springfield on Thursday just outside Di Piero’s to urge a rulemaking group of Illinois state lawmakers to reject Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s efforts, which they say will take federal money away from local economies.

The Pritzker administration said the legislature approved $250 million in federal funds for local government COVID-19-related costs and an additional $636 million for business interruption grant dollars the state will administer.

“The claim that the state is preventing local governments from receiving federal funds is simply false,” Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity spokesperson Lauren Huffman said.

Cole said the Pritzker administration’s rules for distributing the funds shortens the timeline for when funds can be reallocated from December to November. He said theoretically, that could mean funds meant for cities such as Springfield, Peoria, Quincy, Decatur, Rockford or Carbondale could go to “another community that is a state priority.”

“Cairo could have its money taken away and given to Chicago,” Cole said. “We believe that Chicago should have the same rights to spend the funding according to federal guidelines like the city of Cairo, and in fact, Chicago does because they receive it directly, but Cairo does not.”

He said the funds continue to dwindle and they haven’t even been allocated yet.

“We went from $4.9 billion to $2.2 billion to $800 million to $250 million is all that is going to end up in these communities, so we’re going the wrong way and I think we’d rather see that distributed by the local officials than state officials.”

Several months ago as part of the initial aid package the federal government enacted called the CARES Act, there was $150 billion for state and local governments to assist in COVID-related costs. That was separate from the Paycheck Protection Program and not part of the stalled House Democrats’ $3 trillion HEROES Act that would give state and local governments $500 billion in federal funds to cover lost revenue, including $18 billion for Illinois.

But the CARES Act was signed by President Donald Trump hours after it passed March 27.

Cole noted it has been months and not one dollar has gone out to local governments.

Standing in front of his restaurant on the Old State Capitol plaza, Praia said businesses can’t wait.

“Some business owners don’t have time,” Praia said. “They’re struggling day-to-day and it’s a question from day-to-day they may have to go out of business because they can’t hold on any longer.”

The next Joint Commission on Administrative Rules meeting where the governor’s rules could come up is July 14. It’s unclear if the rules will be addressed, as emergency rules can come up during any scheduled meeting.

Staff Reporter

Greg Bishop reports on Illinois government and other issues for The Center Square. Bishop has years of award-winning broadcast experience and hosts the WMAY Morning Newsfeed out of Springfield.