By Jack Sullivan
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.,
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
"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
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
"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
"There's a reason these are six-year bills," Baucus
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
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.