By Tim Leeds
Montana's U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg addressed a variety of issues at a town meeting in Havre Wednesday night, including his view on President Bush's stance on going to war with Iraq to disarm Saddam Hussein.
"I support the president," Rehberg said.
Rehberg talked to about 50 people at the TownHouse Inns in Havre during one of many stops to talk to constituents during a four-day tour of northern Montana. The tour, which began Tuesday in Glasgow and Malta, continued today, including more meetings in Havre, Chester and Shelby, and meetings in Great Falls on Friday.
Rehberg said he supports preventing Saddam from gaining the ability to do more damage to the United States than he can now.
"History repeats itself," Rehberg said. "There are people out there that are bullies. We knew them in school."
Rehberg answered several questions about funding for Montana programs. While he and Sens. Max Baucus and Conrad Burns will continue to work to appropriate money for programs impacting Montana and to support applications from the state for federal grants, it's getting more difficult to justify the funding, he said.
"The argument is getting harder and harder every year," he said.
Two programs he addressed were the passenger rail service Amtrak and the Essential Air Service Program, which subsidizes airline flights to rural communities like Havre.
Amtrak president David Gunn said last year that the service would shut down unless it received $1.2 billion. Congress recently approved $1.05 billion for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1, 2002, and Amtrak officials are reviewing the appropriation.
Bush's budget proposals have included cuts in Essential Air Service.
Rehberg predicted that funding will be adequate to keep both Amtrak and the rural flight subsidy running this year, "but it's getting tougher all the time."
He said people have to remember that Montana is a "donee" state, which receives considerably more money from the federal government than it pays.
The small population and long distances n the state justify receiving additional aid, Rehberg said.
"When it comes to Montana, it's a needed service. For everybody else, it's just pork," he quipped.
That argument keeps getting harder to make as more people request a share of the pie, he added.
"Everybody looks to the federal government for money. We do the best that we can," Rehberg said. "There are always more applicants than there is money."
Rehberg answered several questions about agriculture and water, adding that he has really liked taking on water issues.
"Any water issue I can support I will," he said.
He said he supports the renovation and rebuilding of the St. Mary Diversion, a project begun near the turn of the last century that supplies half or more of the water in the Milk River.
The Milk River Joint Board of Control, which consists of representatives of the irrigation districts in the valley, and U.S. Department of the Interior representatives have estimated the cost of repair at $100 million.
Rehberg said it was difficult getting agricultural disaster aid passed. Congress recently agreed to approve $3.1 billion in disaster aid, including aid for farmers and ranchers hurt by drought or floods. A Senate proposal to provide $6.1 billion in disaster aid was stopped in the House last year.
It was difficult getting Bush to understand the problem, Rehberg said. While the president is a businessman, he doesn't know agriculture, Rehberg added.
The president asked why, when the 2002 Congress approved a new farm bill providing more than $75 billion in assistance over five years, it would turn around and ask for $6.1 billion more, Rehberg said.
"We said, 'No, that's price stability. This is disaster assistance,'" he said.
Rehberg, who ranches near Billings, also said he opposes the Conservation Reserve Program, a federal program that pays farmers to take marginal land out of production.
Some in the audience said producers are taking too much of the land out of production, creating a ripple effect in local economies by reducing purchases of fuel and other agriculture-related products.
"I took a position a long time ago against CRP," Rehberg said. "I think farmers were sucked into it believing it was something it wasn't."
Rehberg said he will reintroduce his bill to change the boundaries of the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument.
Some landowners, whose land was reserved inside the monument boundary to become part of the monument if the federal government buys their land, have asked that the boundary be redrawn to exclude their property.
Rehberg sponsored a bill in 2002 to do that, but said Wednesday that he couldn't get it out of committee.
Neither the Bush administration nor the state of Montana, which also has land within the monument boundary, would support his bill, he said.
"I will reintroduce it," Rehberg said. "One hundred twenty-four landowners matter."
He said people who use the monument treat the private land within its boundaries as if it were part of the monument.
"In the minds of people trespassing, it's part of the monument," he said.