By James Monteleone

Triplicate Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON - Democratic Rep. Mike Thompson wants to make improving easier for rural counties like Del Norte and plans to pitch his idea to a congressional panel Wednesday.

The congressman is scheduled to outline a bill for the House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee on aviation that would allow some rural areas to receive existing federal grant money for airport improvements without putting up any matching funds.

Currently, counties and municipalities are expected to match 5 percent of what's received through federal grants. This September, that number is expected to jump to 10 percent.

andquot;Economically depressedandquot; regions are defined by Thompson's bill as areas having a jobless rate 1 percent above the national average, or lower than average per person income, or special circumstances such as major population loss or natural disaster.

The unemployment rate in Del Norte was 6.9 percent in March 2007, compared with the national rate of 4.4 percent, which means the county would qualify for the unfettered airport improvement grant money being proposed. Thompson believes that an expanded airport is essential to economic development.

Rural areas andquot;need an airport to improve their economy, but if they're not able to match these funds, then they're not able to get an airport improvement grant,andquot; said Thompson's communications director, Anne Desmond Warden. andquot;What might seem like a tiny amount to a big city like L.A., is actually a sizeable amount for a place like Del Norte.andquot;

Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., is a co-sponsor of the bill, but will not be testifying at Wednesday's hearing. The subcommittee on aviation will ultimately decide whether the bill will be sent to the full committee for a vote.