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The pork stops here

When Barack Obama takes office Jan. 20, the new Congress will already have a pork-free economic stimulus bill ready for him to sign.

U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen made this pledge, with some caveats, to a room full of Island County elected officials and representatives of local businesses Thursday morning. He was in Coupeville to promote an economic recovery and job creation package he is pushing in Congress.

Larsen said “it’s tough all over” and that it’s vital for Congress to act quickly.

“Sometimes the federal government is the only dog in the pound big enough to get the other dogs in the corner to do what it wants,” he said.

Larsen, a Democrat representing District 2, explained that “a constitutional quirk” makes it possible for the new Congress to have the bill ready for Obama’s immediate signature. Members of Democrat-laden Congress are sworn in Jan. 6, a whole two weeks before the next president moves into the White House.

The officials from Whidbey and Camano described the projects they would like to have federal money pay for, but Larsen said the bill won’t have any earmarks in order to pass it quickly. Earmarks, also known as pork spending, are requirements that money be spent on specific projects.

Larsen said the $600 billion package that’s envisioned will have four elements; each will receive a portion of the money, but the percentages haven’t been figured out. There will be funding for job-creating infrastructure projects, food stamps, health care and environmentally friendly technology.

“We’re not talking about rebate checks this time, we’re talking about an investment in infrastructure and our future,” the congressman said. He helped push a similar bill through the House earlier this year, but it failed in the Senate.

The infrastructure money, Larsen explained, will likely go to projects that are “ready to go.” He said it’s up to local officials to decide how to “fit” their projects into funding programs.

Larsen said the bulk of money will go to the states, where officials will dole it out. But he said he will try to get some of the money for roads and bridges to local planning groups, like regional transportation planning organizations.

The local officials made it clear to Larsen that it’s a difficult economic time on the island and federal help is wanted. Island County Commissioner John Dean said county officials have building projects designed, including Freeland sewers and an Island Transit facility.

Oak Harbor Mayor Jim Slowik said the loss of a Ford dealership and Kenmore Air ending flights out of the Oak Harbor Airport could have dire consequences for the city’s economy.

“Really, it’s a blow to all of Island County,” he said.

But Slowik said he had a plan for keeping Kenmore Air by using a grant, though the terms would have to be changed. He discussed his idea with the congressman.

Several of the leaders, including Coupeville Mayor Nancy Conard, emphasized that small businesses are critical to the economy.

“Support to chambers and Main Street businesses can really be helpful,” she said. “A small investment can make a big difference.”

Langley Councilman Russell Sparkman said his community is well positioned to become a haven for green businesses. He gave Larsen information about a man who proposed building an electric motorcycle manufacturing facility on South Whidbey.

“Langley’s got the political and community will to be transformative,” he said.

Yet by and large, the officials shared tales of woe. And the woe may continue for awhile. Larsen said current projections show the recession will last until the end of next year, or possibly into 2010.

“It’s a very difficult time,” he said. “We’re in this together and we’re coming out of this together.”

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