State: Flood buyout money caught in gridlock

By Mark Fitton
Illinois News Network

SPRINGFIELD — A southern Illinois state lawmaker says his bill to release funding to help residents of an often-flooded area of Alexander County isn’t about politics, but he’s finding himself at odds with the governor.

Rep. Brandon Phelps, D-Harrisburg, this week filed House Bill 4339, which seeks $5 million from the Capital Development Fund.

The money, along with $9 million in federal funds, would help complete buyouts of properties in the Olive Branch area that were destroyed or made uninhabitable by flooding in 2011.

Phelps said the concept and funding has been approved before, and the floodplain buyout effort needs to get rolling again despite the state’s budget impasse.

“It’s all been approved, but I think the governor’s holding it because he says we don’t have a budget,” Phelps said.

“I’m just trying to kick start it,” he said. “I don’t want this to be in the political game.”

The Republican governor’s office says Phelps and his fellow Democrats need to get together with the GOP and work out a balanced budget.

“Instead of focusing on enacting reforms and passing a balanced budget, Rep. Phelps is choosing to politicize a project that his party’s out-of-balance budget failed to include. In fact, the money for the Olive Branch relocation project was included in two bills of the governor’s introduced budget, neither of which were called for a vote in committee,” Rauner spokeswoman Catherine Kelly said in an email.

“We would urge Rep. Phelps to work with his party to enact meaningful reforms to free up resources to help balance the budget, while also passing a balanced budget, which
is something only the legislature can do,” she said.

Phelps says the long-running Olive Branch saga needs resolution, and the promised financial help needs to arrive in Alexander County regardless of political fights in Springfield.

“These aren’t only my constituents, these are Gov. Rauner’s constituents, too,” Phelps said. “I’m just fighting for the people of my district. I don’t want this tied up in the political game, so to speak.”

“These folks didn’t ask the good Lord to wipe out their town in the flood four years ago,” Phelps said. “It’s awful. I don’t know how you put a price tag on people living in filth and unsanitary conditions.”

The Olive Branch area includes the unincorporated Alexander County towns of Olive Branch, Miller City, Hodges Park and Unity along Illinois 3. The 2011 floods saw two levees breached and about 200 structures damaged, with some of those structures taking on six feet of water, according to articles about that flood published by The Southern Illinoisan.

About 111 properties remain in the floodplain buyout program.

Illinois is concluding its fifth month of fiscal year 2016 without a budget as the first-term Republican governor and legislative Democrats who control the General Assembly remain at impasse.

Rauner, of Winnetka, wants substantial change in five areas: workers compensation standards, lawsuit reform, a property tax freeze combined with diminished collective bargaining, term limits for elected officials, and independent legislative redistricting.

The Democrats want money for state services beyond the roughly $32.5 billion estimated available. They passed a roughly $36 billion spending plan, saying they’d work with the governor on revenues and cuts.

With the exception of money for primary and secondary education, the governor vetoed most of the Legislature’s plan, saying he wouldn’t support additional revenue until he gets some of his agenda items, which he contends are necessary for Illinois’ economy to significantly improve.

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