USA

The growth rate of total federal spending has dropped slightly, according to the Consolidated Federal Funds Report released Tuesday by the Census Bureau. The annual report, which compiles data on how much federal money goes to each state, shows that federal spending rose 5 percent to $2.2 trillion during the 2004 budget year, down from a 6-to-8 percent rate in several previous years. Nearly half went to just three entitlement programs: Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Among the other findings:

• One third of all federal spending went to five states: California, New York, Texas, Florida, and Pennsylvania.

• Alaska led the nation in per capita federal spending, at $12,885 per person, while Nevada was last, with $5,469 per capita.

Forty-nine people in the Bakersfield, Calif., area, including 17 workers at that city's Red Cross call center, have been indicted for funneling money meant for people displaced by hurricane Katrina into their own pockets, The Washington Post reported. The scheme was uncovered when federal authorities became suspicious that more people were picking up Red Cross money at Western Union offices in Bakersfield than had been temporarily relocated there. The sudden dispersal of more than 1 million evacuees to 47 states made the Red Cross's largest cash-assistance program ever vulnerable to false claimants.

Baby boomers born between 1946 and 1964 are more hesi tant to use direct deposit than their parents, according to a new study conducted as part of the government's "Go Direct" campaign. The results, a Treasury Department spokesman said, suggest that the government's costs to issue paper checks for Social Security and other benefits will rise exponentially in the coming years, especially as postage increases. Seventy-two percent of seniors take advantage of the direct-deposit option, compared with only 59 percent of baby boomers, many of whom like to deposit paper checks at their financial institutions and distrust direct deposit. It costs the government 83 cents to produce, mail, and process a paper check. The cost of direct deposit, on the other hand, is about 8.5 cents.

In a holiday battle of Hollywood blockbusters, Universal's "King Kong" narrowly edged Buena Vista's "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" with $31.4 million in box office receipts over the four-day Christmas weekend. "Chronicles of Narnia" took in $30.1 million.

Reynaldo Rapalo, a serial rape suspect who'd escaped from a Miami prison Dec. 20 while awaiting trial, was escorted to a different jail Tuesday after his Monday night capture outside a southwest Miami video store. Rapalo is a Honduran native who has been living in the US on an expired visa.

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