Illinois pot taxes to fund violence prevention, prisoner re-entry programs

Politics

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (NEXSTAR) — In the first year of legal recreational marijuana, Illinois pot shops sold more than a billion dollars in product. Now, the state is distributing a portion of the sales taxes to communities hit the hardest by the punishing laws of prohibition.

The Pritzker administration handed out $31.5 million in grant funding on Friday to 80 nonprofit groups and cities across the state that applied to participate in the fledgling ‘Restore, Reinvest, and Renew Program.’

The East Springfield Community Center Commission won $808,992 in two grants designed to prevent violence and recidivism. Dameon Johnson, the president of the nonprofit, plans to use the funds to recruit up to 30 inmates to enter a job training program upon their exit from prison.

The grant funds were designated for communities that suffered with high rates of gun violence, child poverty, joblessness, and felony crimes, categories that Johnson said envelop “roughly half of our city.”

“I grew up on Springfield’s east side,” Johnson said. “Born and raised here, so it’s personal.”

Johnson partnered with Jermaine Ward, owner of Monty’s Custom Furniture, to set up a workshop where former felons can learn how to build and repair homes. Their goal is to purchase enough properties that they can provide affordable housing for former inmates to prevent them from suffering homelessness.

“I’ll be training homeless, ex-felons, and troubled youth,” Ward said. “We’ll find an elderly homeowner or a veteran homeowner in a distressed area. I’ll pick a task on the outside of the house, and whatever ten guys can do, they’ll provide the labor, I’ll provide the materials, and it’s just their way of giving back to the community and rebuilding a community.”

Johnson said his nonprofit is reaching out to the Department of Corrections for referrals and plans to ramp up the project within the next three to six months.

“This is our home,” he said. “I’m not going anywhere. I want this to be the absolute best city it could be.”

Springfield Alderman Shawn Gregory, who represents the city’s Second Ward on the east side, said most people who get out of prison struggle to find employment and often fall back into a cycle of desperation and crime.

“When push comes to shove, people got to eat and get hungry, and they’re going to do what they’re going to do to survive,” Gregory said. “And, you know, most of the time, it’s not a pretty thing or acceptable thing by society.”

Gregory sponsored a plan with Alderwoman Doris Turner to split half of the city’s share of cannabis sales tax revenue between police and fire pension funds and projects to redevelop blighted communities. However, due to privacy provisions written into state law that shield a company’s sales revenue from public view, the city’s budget director has said they can’t spend or report the funds without violating state law.

Mayor Jim Langfelder says he’s seen the city’s sales tax figures from the one licensed company in town, but said state law won’t allow him to report the totals to the public without permission from the company.

“I’m not supposed to divulge that, but we are trying to get authorization from Ascend to allow us to put that into our budget,” Langfelder said.

A spokesperson for Ascend Wellness Holdings, the only cannabis company in the capital city, would not comment on any specific discussions with the city of Springfield, but supported the general mission of using a portion of the tax proceeds to fund redevelopment.

“We applaud the decision by the state of Illinois to use the strength of our industry to help reform and reinvest in communities that have been disproportionately harmed,” chief revenue officer Chris Melillo said. “We see this action as an important and necessary step in the evolution of cannabis deregulation and a step towards positive change.”

While the mayor wouldn’t say exactly how much the city has collected in cannabis sales taxes, which are collected on top of the state’s sales tax, he put the figure in the “tens of thousands” range.

“Government will figure out a way to spend the money,” Langfelder chuckled. “No doubt about it.”

The city of Springfield also won a state grant for $80,000 to lay the groundwork for future economic development. Langfelder said the city’s first application for a larger grant wasn’t approved, but he hopes a second round of grant funding could open the door for more community reinvestment, specifically in repairing broken down homes.

“We have a lot of dilapidated properties, we have vacant properties,” he said. “And what we want to do is stop the proliferation of tearing down and try to save housing, especially before it’s to the point of demolition, and then refurbish those.”

“This is trying to help catch up from years of inequality,” Gregory said.

“This is necessary,” Johnson said. “We have to do something because our communities are suffering. Violence has plagued our community. We can’t ignore it. We have to start somewhere. We have to do something about it. We just can’t just sit on our couches and say, ‘Hey, you know the problem is outside of my home, it doesn’t matter to me.’ We’re all at risk. If we don’t do something, our children are going to continue to suffer.”

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