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Baucus: Highway bill important for Montana economy

By Jack Sullivan
Associated Press

WASHINGTON – The six year, $318 billion Senate highway bill now facing roadblocks over its cost is one of the most important pieces of legislation for Montana that Congress could pass, Sen. Max Baucus says.

"And that's because it's jobs," Baucus, D-Mont., said Wednesday.

If enacted, the Senate bill would replace a six-year, $218 billion highway program that expired last year but has been temporarily extended until the end of this month.

Those funds paid for highway projects across Montana _ interstate improvements, bridge reconstruction and better interchanges and overpasses. They also supported more than 17,000 jobs in the state, according to estimates, generating important economic activity.

"So in many respects this is our economic development program, the highway bill," Baucus said.

Montana received a total of $1.6 billion through the previous program and would receive $2.2 billion over the next six years if the proposal is enacted, according to an analysis prepared for Baucus.

President Bush and conservatives want a smaller bill, largely because they do not want to spend so much when federal deficits surpass one-half trillion dollars.

The administration has recommended a leaner, $256 billion package _ and said Wednesday that the president will veto a bill the size of the Senate's.

The House Transportation Committee wants $375 billion, but House GOP leaders have said they won't go along with a proposal to pay for the increase by raising the federal tax, now 18.4 cents a gallon, that drivers pay at the gas pump.

With quick passage unlikely, the House voted Tuesday to extend the current programs again, through June.

Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., Said the House's unanimous vote to extend current programs will give Congress time to reconcile disputes.

"Everyone agrees there's no need to rush a bill that comes along only once every six years," Rehberg said. The House bill should be ready for floor debate "in the next couple of weeks," said Rehberg, who serves on the House Transportation Committee

Baucus said Congress should finish the work as soon as possible. Extensions are difficult for governors, legislatures and financial officials who "need a little more predictability, a little more certainty" when planning extensive construction work.

"There's a reason these are six-year bills," Baucus said.

Senate leaders hope to finish their bill by week's end. It would still need to be reconciled with House legislation and survive the administration's veto threat.

The Senate planned a vote Thursday on ending the delaying tactics by GOP conservatives who agree with the White House that the bill is too expensive.

But many Republicans were leaning in the other direction. Sen. James Talent, R-Mo., Said the $375 billion sought by the House was necessary if the country is to "start paying back the transportation deficit" while creating hundreds of thousands of jobs.

The Senate bill would not raise the gas tax. The Finance Committee, led by Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and Baucus, wrote a plan that would use a series of budgetary maneuvers to allows more highway spending without increasing the gas tax or the federal deficit, Baucus said.

Federal highway construction money is supposed to come entirely from the highway trust fund, paid for by the gasoline tax.

In general, Baucus said, Eastern states did better than those in the West until 1998, when Baucus, an Eastern senator and a Southern senator together wrote new formulas for the allocations.

"I was working really hard last time to correct an imbalance, and we went a long way to correcting that imbalance .... The formulas that we wrote are the formulas that are being used this time," he said.

The current Senate proposal would make it so every state gets back at least 95 cents of every gas-tax dollar they pay over the life of the program. Sparsely populated states and those with less than 1 million residents would see funding increased.

Baucus said he leveraged his position on the Finance Committee and a senior spot on the Environment and Public Works Committee to keep Montana funding high in relation to other states. "So not only do we get to do well because we're a sparsely populated state, but I think that even more importantly, I'm at the table," he said.

Rebherg and Baucus said the legislation being considered would fund improvements for several Montana projects, including Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park, U.S. 93 and the Beartooth Highway.