Eye On Illinois: With federal aid coming, state needs to spend wisely, transparently

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How do you spend $7.5 billion? Illinois is about to answer that question.

The state’s direct haul from the American Rescue Plan is $7.5 billion, but the federal coronavirus relief package also includes $5.5 billion for city and county governments as well as $5 billion for K-12 schools. That all is on top of direct $1,400 relief payments for individuals.

Whether the relief is properly sized is a debate for another platform. Congress approved the package and once the president signs off, the money starts flowing. How the state manages the cash influx will be essential to defining Gov. JB Pritzker’s first term and potential re-election bid, which means plenty of voters will be watching closely.

A large chunk will help pay back $2 billion borrowed from the Federal Reserve in December, which Comptroller Susana Mendoza said went to covering public health care expenses.

Senate President Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, issued a statement indicating he expects money to go in part toward distributing vaccines, supporting local health departments and reopening schools.

We may never fully unpack the many ways in which the pandemic — which isn’t over — caused economic disruption, but public officials would do well to be explicit about how relief funds are used and which specific problems they are attempting to solve, and not just because of a general preference for transparency.

One political downside of the feds delivering a giant relief package is how it limits the opportunity to blame longstanding state problems on COVID. Taxpayers will remember which problems existed 13 months ago, such as decaying infrastructure, teacher shortages and unfunded pension liability, and won’t let politicians off the hook for failing to devise solutions.

There are indicators this money can be well spent. Kristin Faust, executive director of the Illinois Housing Development Authority, told the House Housing Committee Wednesday about plans to spend $500 million that came from a December stimulus package. One is the Rental Protection Program, which will help tenants and landlords cover missed payments, an essential effort given an ongoing eviction moratorium keeping perhaps 500,000 people from losing their housing.

Faust said in the last four months of 2020 her department disbursed $225 million in rental assistance and $100 million in mortgage aid grants. That money directly helped 46,000 renters and 10,000 homeowners. That hasn’t been enough to make landlords whole, which gives the IHDA a roadmap for where to keep helping.

The state can’t make everyone whole for what was lost in the last year, but it can — if left unchecked — fritter away a fine opportunity to plug as many holes as possible. This is our money, for helping our people, and we’re all going to have to be involved in spending it wisely.

• Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Media Local News Network. Follow him on Twitter at @sth749. He can be reached at sholland@shawmedia.com.

via Shaw Local

March 13, 2021 at 01:23PM

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