By Joe Rutherford

Daily Journal

The U.S. Senate is expected to vote today on 2004 funding for the Appalachian Regional Commission, and a $71 million spending level is anticipated for the far-flung economic development agency.

Beth Day, press secretary for U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., said Monday "no amendments are on the horizon" that would change a committee's recommendation for the $71 million figure.

If approved, Senate and House versions of the funding would go to conference because the House approved $33 million, half the 2003 appropriation.

Cochran and his Mississippi Republican colleague, Sen. Trent Lott, both favor the higher figure. The House had cut the ARC appropriation at President Bush's request.

ARC, in partnership with other agencies and the private sector, funds infrastructure, education, jobs development, technology and health projects in West Virginia and portions of 12 other states, including Northeast Mississippi.

"Praise the Lord. We are so grateful for our congressional delegation's work," a pleased Mississippi ARC Director Mabel Murphree said.

Murphree, of Tupelo, said she is heartened by the prospect of funding higher than the House version.

Murphree said a $71 million budget for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 could fund several pending Northeast Mississippi projects:

- Education contracts from pre-school through graduate school with Mississippi State University.

- Branch campus funding in Corinth for Northeast Mississippi Community College in Booneville.

- An industrial access road in Oktibbeha County.

- Work force development planning in partnership with CREATE, a community foundation in Tupelo.

- Partial funding for the Tupelo Incubator, a downtown economic development project in partnership with the Community Development Foundation, the Tennessee Valley Authority and other money sources.

Murphree said other proposals under development aren't ready for public discussion but would be released after funding levels are set.

Republican Congressman Roger Wicker of Tupelo, a strong ARC supporter, said he and other senior members of the House Appropriations Committee intend to protect the commission's interests.

"We will fight to keep the Senate number at a time when unemployment is still too high," Wicker said. "It makes sense to fund it fully."

Wicker said other Appropriations members in the House from Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Ohio are certain to back the Senate's funding even though they did not make a major issue of the amount passed in the House.

Day of Cochran's office said the schedule for the Senate's vote isn't certain, but completed action is expected today.

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