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Panel's aims go beyond SBA

January 17, 2007|Cyndia Zwahlen | Special to The Times

What a difference a day makes.

When voters gave control of Congress to the Democrats on election day in November, the balance of power shifted in the almost four dozen committees on which members do the nitty-gritty work of legislating.

The new chairwoman of the House Small Business Committee is Nydia M. Velazquez (D-N.Y.), a 14-year member of the panel who was sworn in to lead it this month. She has wasted little time in making her mark.

Even before the congresswoman and her staff completed the move from their old basement office -- their assigned spot as the committee's political minority for the last 12 years of Republican reign -- Velazquez acted to significantly expand the reach of the committee beyond its focus on the Small Business Administration.

With approval this month by the Democratic House leaders, the committee will be able to consider any legislation Velazquez believes affects small business.

"I guess people before were satisfied with the jurisdiction of the Small Business Committee. I wanted to be more helpful and I wanted to be more responsible in dealing with issues affecting small businesses," she said.

The former university professor, who also sits on the House Financial Services Committee, in 1992 became the first Puerto Rican woman elected to Congress. In her new post, she is the first Latina to chair a full congressional committee.

Her committee will continue to focus on oversight of the SBA and the agency's $200 billion in loan, contracting and consulting programs.

The new SBA administrator, Steven C. Preston, is scheduled to present his first budget to the committee and Congress next month. Velazquez will play a key role in the latest reauthorization of the agency, which is expected this year.

This month she introduced two bills meant to help small businesses financially. One would ease tax rules; a second would allow business checking accounts to earn interest.

In addition to tax relief and access to capital, the congresswoman's priorities for small business include boosting federal contract opportunities and advocating for healthcare reform.

We spoke with Velazquez last week about her plans, as her staff was still setting up computers and untangling phone snags in their larger digs next to the Small Business Committee hearing room. Her answers have been edited for clarity and space.

How will your committee's expanded reach help small business?

When legislation is considered by a committee, I will raise the issue with the parliamentarian and say it has an impact on small businesses and I will want to be able to consider and input into that legislation. Before, we couldn't do that.

We, the committee that really represents small businesses, should be in a position to react to it and to talk about the impact that it is going to have and to help educate the other members as to the impact of the legislation on small businesses.

What will the committee do that it hasn't done before to ensure that small businesses get their fair share of federal contracts?

There are contracting goals for small business -- 23% of contracting dollars. It is the law. And the federal government in the last five to seven years has failed to achieve the contract goal.

Then the report we issued last year showed contracts were miscoded. They weren't going to small businesses. Companies self-certify that they are small firms. There is no oversight. That's important.

First, we need to increase the resources. One of the reasons this is happening is the SBA does not have the manpower, the contracting officers, to analyze who submits a bid. They cut by more than half the number of contracting officers.

What needs to change at the SBA?

Well, I want to see the agency go back to what it used to be, a powerhouse representing the interests of small business in this country. It used to be a Cabinet-level agency and now it's not. It doesn't have a seat at the table. And in the last five or six years, its budget has been cut nearly in half.

How will you make changes at the SBA?

We want to modernize some of the programs. We need to revamp the disaster loan program. I also want to take steps to ensure small firms can access capital through the SBA 7(a) loan program. Thirty percent of all long-term financing in this country is done through 7(a) loans. We want to lower the fees that they have to pay. You can find small firms paying up to $50,000 on larger loans.

Are you a proponent of association health plans?

I've been supportive of the association health plans allowing small businesses to band together to purchase health insurance. We need to find a solution. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, but we have to look at how we can address the fact that 44 million Americans are without health insurance and 60% are small-business owners, their employees or their families.

Do you support an increase in the federal minimum wage?

Yes, I do. I also believe that we should be open to providing some type of assistance for this nation's small businesses.

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