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GOP blasts Obama for shorting Lewis & Clark water funds

The Lewis & Clark Regional Water System needs about 10 times as much funding as President Obama included in his proposed Fiscal Year 2015 budget, unveiled this week, said Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., and Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D.

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Obama's $2.4 million line item is "far below what is needed to make progress" and shorts local communities and states that have fulfilled their commitments to pay their portion of the $462 million project, Noem said.

"Dollars that were pledged were done in good faith. The only entity that has not followed through is the federal government," Noem said. "I have been very disappointed with the fact this hasn't been a priority for the president."

Noem said she would work to increase that funding as Congress works to pass a new budget. Obama's line item of $3.2 million for the project in the previous FY2014 budget was recently increased by Congress to $8.4 million, Noem said.

"We will try to bump that number," she said of the $2.4 million line item.

Thune railed against Obama's overall budget for spending too much, but when it comes to Lewis & Clark, the amount is far too little, he said.

"This is a large-scale project with large-scale needs and demands. He couldn't find more than $2.4 million to finish a project the federal government promised would be completed. This is only going to extend it further and is going to increase the cost to the taxpayer," Thune said. "The longer this drags on, the more expensive it becomes."

Thune complained, too, that the FY2014 funding could not be bumped up beyond $8.4 million. The additional money came from a pool of $27 million given to the federal Bureau of Reclamation to split among six rural water projects.

"We got $5.2 million out of $27 million. We need to be appropriating $25 million to $30 million per year to keep this project on task," Thune said. "It's frankly pretty much laughable."

Thune also called on Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., as a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee and as a Democrat, to do more to convince the Obama administration to fund the project.

"The best thing we can do is try to influence that process. I would hope the members from the three states (South Dakota, Iowa and Minnesota) and the senators on the Appropriations Committee -- Sen. Harken and Sen. Johnson -- those people need to be weighing in with the White House and weighing in very aggressively to get this situation corrected and get the White House more committed to this project," Thune said.

Johnson's Communications Director Perry Plumart said Johnson has had multiple conversations about Lewis & Clark with high-ranking officials including the secretary of the Interior and the director of the Office of Management and Budget. He even questioned Interior Secretary Sally Jewell about it during her Senate confirmation hearing. In addition, Sen. Johnson has led multiple letter-writing efforts to outline the need to adequately fund the Lewis & Clark project, he said.

Johnson said it's budget hawks such as Thune who cause projects such as Lewis & Clark to find themselves underfunded, alluding to Thune's votes against recent budget deals that included the money for the Lewis & Clark project.

"I was as disappointed in the 2015 budget request for Lewis & Clark as I was when President Bush provided no funding for the project in 2009," Johnson said. "That year, I was able to use my position on the Appropriations Committee to secure $27 million for the project through an earmark. Unfortunately, earmarks have now been eliminated even for worthy, authorized projects like Lewis & Clark. Those who supported the earmark ban and insist on further cuts to discretionary spending have left us with few options to correct this situation."