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Burns says $76 million in pork necessary for state

WASHINGTON - The $820 billion spending bill the Senate passed this week gave Montana senators the opportunity to brag about the $76 million earmarked for projects in Big Sky country.

Although these projects make up but a small share of the more than $1.5 billion in federal money that flows to Montana each year, they are a focal point for lawmakers and organizations that criticize government profligacy.

When there is a $500 billion federal deficit, lawmakers are ambivalent about projects in the spending bill that organizations like Taxpayers for Common Sense and some fiscally conservative lawmakers deride as "pork."

"What do you want me to do, trap myself?" Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., responded when asked about the

$76 million in Montana projects that are in the bill. "These are projects that are needed. You don't want me to self-indict myself do you?"

Montana's projects placed it 38th among the states and territories on a list compiled by Taxpayers for Common Sense. Wyoming's $15 million haul left it in the cellar, dead last on the list.

Because Burns is a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which writes the annual spending bills, he is better able to see that money is set aside for Montana projects.

Burns, who describes himself as a fiscal conservative, says there is nothing wrong with securing funds for Montana.

"I offer no apologies," Burns said. "I have nothing to apologize for. It is allocated for specific purposes and we have done it since the beginning of time."

The top money-gathering states are California with $965 million and New York with $507 million, but Alaska and West Virginia, which, like Montana, are rural and sparsely populated, have large numbers of individual projects. Alaska raked in more than $495 million worth of projects, while West Virginia's take is $378 million. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, and Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W. Va., are chairman and top Democrat respectively on the Appropriations Committee.

In fiscal year 2002, Montana ranked sixth in the amount of per capita federal aid that states receive, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, while Wyoming ranked second behind Alaska on the Census Bureau's list. Fiscal year 2002 is the most recent year that data are available. Much of the money comes from programs like Medicare and federal highway building programs that the Appropriations Committee does not control.

Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., is working on a large transportation bill that would bring even more money to the state. Under the formula the Senate is considering, Montana would receive $322 million in fiscal year 2004. The sum would gradually climb to $437 million by fiscal year 2009.

Republican senators Mike Enzi and Craig Thomas of Wyoming attributed the dearth of specific projects to their constituents' and their own fiscal conservatism.

"We work hard to fund the things that are legitimate," Thomas said. "It's true that Alaska and West Virginia got a little heavy on stuff and that is too bad."

Cato Institute director of fiscal policy Chris Edwards said Wyoming's lack of projects is due to a combination of principles and a lack of pull on the Appropriations Committees.

"I guess they didn't lobby as hard," said Edwards, whose organization bills itself as a Libertarian think tank. "You don't necessarily have to be on the Appropriations Committee to get a project. Maybe someone on the committee owes you a favor."

Keith Ashdown, vice president of policy for Taxpayers for Common Sense, dismisses claims that Wyoming lawmakers are standing on principle.

"It is all tied to how close you are to the senior leadership of the Appropriations Committee," Ashdown said.

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