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Washington, D.C. - U.S. Senators Craig Thomas and Mike Enzi, both R-Wyo., helped pass a long awaited appropriations bill in the Senate yesterday after Democrats failed to complete the task last year.

The Senate passed its version of the omnibus appropriations bill by a vote of 69-29. The $385.9 billion bill is a combination of 11 fiscal year 2003 appropriations bills left unfinished from the previous year. Last year only the Defense and Military Construction appropriations bills were completed by Congress and signed into law.

Thomas and Enzi said after months of trying to get a budget passed in the last Senate, they are pleased the new Republican leadership was able to pass the omnibus quickly, while holding the line on spending.

"We worked very hard to make sure that the omnibus package includes some great things that directly benefit folks in Wyoming, such as dramatic increases in highway funding, rural healthcare and drought assistance," Thomas said. "With our country facing a possible war with Iraq, and the need to strengthen the economy, and we must move forward with funding priorities. The money appropriated Thursday will help achieve our goals."

"I am pleased the Senate was able to finally come to an agreement on these appropriations, but I am disappointed with how long the process took. Now we can finally focus on our spending priorities for fiscal year 2004," said Enzi.

The omnibus includes funding for the operation of federal government agencies, departments and programs. There was a small, across-the-board spending cut for all agencies, and therefore the final spending figures will not be released until after the House and Senate reconcile their bills.

The Senate bill would provide $74.2 billion for Agriculture; $47.1 billion for Commerce, Justice and State; $26.16 billion for Energy and Water Development; $18.97 billion for the Department of Interior and Related Agencies; $430.1 billion for Labor-Health and Human Services-Education; $64.6 billion for Transportation; $34.53 billion for the Treasury and Postal Services; and $121.9 billion or Veterans Affairs/Housing and Urban Development; $512 million for the District of Columbia.

Thomas and Enzi said several items in the omnibus would benefit Wyoming.

Drought

The Senate passed a $3.1 billion drought assistance amendment to help move money quickly to those who need it most and to those who have experienced severe losses in the state. Additional funding for agriculture would be used for commodity programs, agricultural research, and conservation programs as well as rural development and domestic food assistance programs.

Transportation

The bill provides a significant amount of funding for Wyoming transportation projects and includes the baseline funding level the state is entitled under the TEA-21, which would add about $196 million to the state's highway coffers.

Other Wyoming transportation projects funded in the bill include $4 million for dynamic messaging signs along I-80 to inform motorists of delays, road closings and other emergency information. Wyoming would also receive $2.5 million for bus and bus facilities; $2.5 million for the I-90 joint Wyoming/Montana port of entry facility; and $1.1 million for Right-of-Way acquisition for improvements to the Seventeen-Mile Road on the Wind River Reservation.

The bill would also provide money for various air service programs including $128 million for the Essential Air Service; and $20 million for the Small Community Air Service Development Pilot Program. The Cheyenne airport would also be given priority consideration for federal funding to improve its main runway, and a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) appropriation which will allow reimbursement to the Jackson Airport for the pilot passenger and baggage screening program currently contracted by TSA to the airport.

Education

The Senate also approved an amendment to increase funding for education by $4 billion, which states would be allowed flexibility in using for any function under the No Child Left Behind Act, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or the Higher Education Act.

The omnibus also provided funding for many national education programs that would benefit Wyoming schools. Rural Education received $175 million, an increase of $12.5 million; and the Impact Aid program would receive nearly $1.2 billion. In addition, TRIO, a program that provides college opportunities for low income and first generation college students, is expected to receive over $832 million.

Rural Health

The bill also addresses rural health issues and includes provisions for an additional $772,522 in Medicare funds for Wyoming hospitals. Thomas and Enzi worked to freeze Medicare payments at 2003 levels to prevent a projected 4.4 percent cut in payments from being implemented. The senators said physicians received a 5.4 percent cut last January, which cost Wyoming physicians $2.5 million, or about $3,148 per physician.

A provision to equalize the standardized amount paid between rural and urban hospitals was also included in the bill. Currently, rural hospitals receive a base payment that is 1.6 percent lower than their urban counterparts.

Law Enforcement

Under the Commerce-Justice-State portion of the omnibus, funding was included for nation-wide law enforcement grant programs that Wyoming's law enforcement agencies have used to improve technology and increase their ability to address drug enforcement issues. The bill also includes funding for the Edward Byrne Memorial state and local law enforcement assistance programs.

Telecommunications

Money for telecommunications, telemedicine and distance learning projects in rural areas, including the National Telecommunications and Information Administration's (NTIA) Technology Opportunities Program (TOP), was also part of the package. The senators said the funding may be used to benefit Wyoming communities, including the Wind River Reservation, that apply and are awarded money for improving telecommunications services in areas that do not have easy or direct access to the Internet or high-speed telecommunications.

Rural Housing

Rural housing issues were also a part of the omnibus and included a rural housing loan authorization level of $3.93 billion to be disseminated for home loans, including rentals, and repairs.

Grasslands

Wyoming would also receive $250,000 for the Thunder Basin National Grasslands Prairie Ecosystem Landowners Association to conduct a monitoring program for developing a long-term management plan for private lands in and around the Thunder Basin National Grasslands.

The House passed its version of the omnibus on January 8, 2003. Now, a Senate-House conference committee will meet to work out the differences between the two bills before sending it to the President for his signature.

Thomas and Enzi said they intend to work with Senate colleagues to produce a budget for the fiscal year 2004 appropriations that will require fiscal discipline, something they said Democrats have not demonstrated.