photos courtesy/REP. RICK LARSEN
|Rep. Rick Larsen (left) visited with local business owners like Steve Roguski, owner of Fairhaven Runners & Walkers. Larsen said businesses expressed the need for more trained workers.|
Rick Larsen is no stranger to doing business in that other Washington.
As representative of the second district, which includes Whatcom, Skagit and Snohomish counties, Larsen has served as the voice of our community in the House of Representatives for the past seven years.
This year marks a change of focus for the congressman, however – one that makes the voices of local small businesses even stronger. This past January, Larsen was appointed as a new member on the House Small Business Committee, where he has pledged to continue his work to support local communities’ economic development activities and help create family wage jobs in the second district. So far this year, the committee has held hearings on health care, patent reform and access to capital, as well as reviewed the Bush administration’s proposed budget for the Small Business Administration.
Since joining the Small Business Committee, Larsen has visited several local businesses, including doing a “business walk” in Fairhaven this spring, and held roundtable discussions with small business owners to hear their concerns.
This is not the first year that he has advocated for small businesses, however. While Larsen secured slots on the House Armed Services Committee, the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and the Small Business Committee this year, Larsen was disappointed to learn his temporary waiver to serve on the House Agriculture Committee was not extended for the 110th Congress. Larsen was the first member of Congress from Western Washington to serve on the House Agriculture Committee in more than 50 years, and while on the committee he worked to help support small- to mid-sized farms throughout the district.
In May, The BBJ phoned Larsen in Washington to discuss his goals for this year.
BBJ: Why is it important to you to serve on the House Small Business Committee?
Larsen: Small businesses are the backbone of our local economies. I had served on the Agriculture Committee, which was great to serve on, and most farms are small farms and small businesses as well. The Small Business Committee seemed good for me to move over to.
One of the goals I set out for myself early this year was to help folks in small- and mid-sized companies find capital and find a way to compete better in the global and national markets. Businesses are not just competing with the business down the street, but also with businesses around the world. It’s important that they get the support they need.
BBJ: What are some of your other goals on this committee?
Larsen: There are a couple of things we can do to continue to help small businesses. I want to continue to support small business development centers so they can supply counseling and training for small businesses. Some of the numbers for Bellingham’s SBDC have been impressive. It has helped 376 businesses in Whatcom County stay in business or expand in 2006, which generated more than $27 million in new capital investments. The SBDC provides excellent tools for small businesses.
I am also introducing legislation which aims to help increase export trade to China. Washington state is one of the largest trade partners with China, and I think there’s an excellent opportunity to expand for small- to mid-sized businesses to export. We need to invest in support to get goods into foreign markets, and this legislation I’m introducing is focused on that export agenda.
My third focus is on virtual town halls, which are essentially teleconferences. I held several conference calls in the district in April, and something that really came up in our district is the lack of qualified workers. Businesses simply can’t find enough qualified people.
Something I can do to address that issue is to look at whether there’s enough focus federally on training for manufacturing. One of the great untold stories is that although there’s been a loss of manufacturers in the country, there are also a lot of busy small- and mid-sized manufacturers. We need to focus on training workers for these jobs. I’m helping Bellingham Technical College with their process technology program, which is one part of that. I’m also helping out with Skagit College in their marine manufacturing program.
BBJ: What are the hot issues facing the House Small Business Committee this year?
Larsen: We’re beginning to explore some of the problems: health care, access to capital and exporting are a few. The issue of the future of aviation is also important, and we’re rewriting the authorization for the FAA bill, which addresses how airport improvements will be funded. This will all have impact on the airports in the district, and I’ve been talking with them about it.
BBJ: How is the committee addressing the health-care issue?
Larsen: Health care is a sticky issue and there is no simple solution. What we can do is to help small businesses and employees purchase health care and support legislation that supports tax credits that help with a portion of those costs.
Another issue for Whatcom County businesses is immigration. I hope we can get comprehensive reform in immigration because this is huge for agriculture, especially. We need to ensure that we have enforcement of our laws but also the economic contribution to our economies now, and we need to look at what would happen if these workers disappeared overnight. We need a comprehensive approach that includes improved tracking of undocumented workers, but also provides opportunities for immigrants to continue to contribute to the economy.
BBJ: The committee has been reviewing and analyzing the administration’s proposed budget for the Small Business Administration. What have been your findings so far?
Larsen: I think the good side is they continue to fund the SBDC, but the budget has largely remained stagnant over the past several years. What that means is that although most agree that the SBDC shouldn’t be 100 percent federally funded, at the same time, if they have to find private funding to do their job, it puts pressure on the SBDCs. Should they try to create jobs or spend their time trying to raise money so they can continue to do their work?
One of the things we’ve been doing is to help the SBDCs tell their stories and explain what they’re doing, so this administration or the next doesn’t see them as baggage on the budget. Secondly, we need to find what is the right balance between public and private support.
BBJ: Agriculture is an important segment of the economy in Whatcom County and has been important to you. How are you planning to continue to support this industry?
Larsen: After six years, I have not given up working for the agricultural economy. The farm bill is up for reauthorization this year, and we need to enhance the role of specialty crops such as raspberries, potatoes and apples. The idea is that we want to provide more research for new and better varieties, as well as export opportunities, and ensure that research continues on pests and bugs. Farmers are not looking for a handout – they just want to make sure the government dollars will help build a solid foundation for the industry.
BBJ: On the subject of Bellingham’s waterfr
ont, the redevelopment of the former G-P pulp-mill site is estimated to cost $1.2 billion or more. How can our community receive federal support for this important project?
Larsen: Fortunately, the project won’t be built all in one day. There will be money for the redevelopment effort, in federal, state, local and private investments. I’m on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and have helped identify transportation dollars for the site. There are also a lot of regulatory issues that need to be overcome to make this happen, such as redefining the [Whatcom Waterway] channel, as well as encouraging the EPA to do work on identifying sediments for dredging and what to do with the former lagoon. There’s going to be a regulatory role to help develop the site in a variety of ways.
I’m excited about this project, but it’s the community’s job to define it and my job to help them get it done.
The expansion of the Bellingham International Airport is important, too. They’ve done a lot of exciting things to bring in new business and make it a regional hub. It brings in jobs and capital into the community, and it shouldn’t be underestimated.
BBJ: What should we look for from you in the next year?
Larsen: There are a couple of heads up for the near future. One is the bill having to do with China, which is especially important in Whatcom County. The Chamber of Commerce has already done one trip to China, and there’s been lot of interest in that. The second thing to look for is the aviation authority moving forward, which should have an impact locally. Thirdly, the role of the SBDCs will continue to be something I’ll work for. Look for my support on these issues in the months to come.