Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Sens. Kerry and Snowe to Press Administration on Women’s Business Center Funding, Contracting Program

Today, Senators John Kerry [D-Mass., pictured] and Olympia J. Snowe [R-Maine], chairman and ranking member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship, outlined specific questions about Women’s Business Center funding they expect the Bush administration to answer at a hearing on Thursday.

Kerry and Snowe have called on the administration to comply with the law, and to fund established and successful Women’s Business Centers as soon as possible. The committee is holding a hearing on women’s business issues on Thursday, Sept. 20, 2007, featuring testimony from female entrepreneurs, the Small Business Administration [SBA], the agency’s inspector general, and the Government Accountability Office [GAO].

“The law was meant to help these successful centers train and assist women entrepreneurs, not starve them of the resources they need to complete their mission,” said Kerry. “I’m disappointed that the SBA is stalling to implement this important program, and at Thursday’s hearing we will demand answers and accountability. I strongly urge Administrator Preston and the rest of the agency to do what’s in the best interest of Women’s Business Centers and their clients, and make these grants available as soon as possible.”

In addition to Women’s Business Center funding, Thursday’s hearing will also focus on the Women’s Procurement Program which was signed into law in 2000. Despite repeated, bipartisan calls, the Bush administration has failed to implement this program over the last seven years.

“We hope it’s the intention of the SBA to come to this hearing prepared to provide detailed answers on how they plan to implement this crucial new grant program,” Sen. Snowe said. “It’s imperative that these centers who are aiding dedicated and successful women entrepreneurs get the funding necessary to their cause.”

Sens. Kerry and Snowe sent a letter to the SBA in August to encourage the agency to temporarily tailor its grant-making process so that Women’s Business Centers could receive renewal grants by Jan. 1, 2008. Instead of taking the advice of Congress, the SBA contends that they are not able to do so under present law. In May, Kerry also asked the Inspector General to investigate funding delays to some Women’s Business Centers.

The Women’s Business Center Renewal Grants program was passed as part of the emergency appropriations bill signed by President Bush in May, and builds on the Women's Business Center Sustainability Pilot Program introduced by Sen. Kerry in 1999. Since then, Congress has worked in a bipartisan way to ensure that centers with a proven track record of success continue to receive matching funding from the SBA.

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Following, is the text of the letter that Kerry and Snowe sent to SBA Administrator Steven C. Preston:

Dear Administrator Preston:

Thank you for replying to our letter regarding Women’s Business Centers and implementation of the Renewal Grants program. We are concerned with your response to specific issues, and would like your agency to come prepared to fully answer questions outlined below at the hearing, “Expanding Opportunities for Women Entrepreneurs: The Future of Women’s Small Business Programs,” on Sept. 20, 2007.

The hearing will partly focus on the management and benefits of the Women’s Business Center program, including renewal grants for graduated and graduating centers. Please be prepared to address the following issues and further explain some of the statements in your letter:

* Implementation and authority. On May 25, 2007, the President signed into law a bill that created the Renewal Grants program. The program became effective immediately and, therefore, the SBA had the authority to provide grants under sub-section [m]. Nevertheless, the reply says, “The SBA cannot operate under the newly legislated guidelines until the date to repeal the old guidelines [October 1, 2007] has passed.” What is preventing the SBA from using this authority?

* Funding and the Grant Process. The SBA contends that it cannot implement the program because, “Until the agency is funded for FY2008, grant disbursement is not possible.” We understand that the SBA cannot obligate or disburse funds until it has appropriations. However, it is our understanding that the request for proposals could be published and responses accepted, with the caveat of being subject to funding, before this time. This would give the SBA additional time and allow for the funds to be awarded immediately after the appropriations bill is enacted, thus helping established centers receive their funding more quickly. Is there anything precluding the agency from requesting proposals before the FY2008 appropriations bill is signed into law?

* Selection criteria. The reply correctly notes that the new law gives graduated centers “funding priority,” but then incorrectly contends that “The graduated center priority implies that all graduated centers would qualify based on years in the program, and not on performance.” This amendment requires grant approval to be based upon criteria developed by the SBA. These criteria are required to be based on the same conditions that are currently being used in awarding grants under the Sustainability Pilot program. Centers must meet those criteria in order to receive a grant. Please explain where the legislation states that centers should receive funding based on years in the program, “regardless of their performance.”

* Funding of New Centers. The SBA contends that the priority funding for graduated centers will preclude the funding of new centers. This is not the case. The amendment states that if funding is limited, established centers should be funded before new centers. We want to see access to counseling for women business owners expanded through new centers. At the same time, it is fiscally responsible for the government to continue building on its investment instead of losing those investments and starting new funding commitments that it might need to abandon later. Women’s Business Centers would receive a significant increase in the Senate appropriations for FY2008 -- $16.88 million, or $4 million more than last year. That should be sufficient to fund existing, graduated, and new centers. Please tell us how much the SBA requested for FY2007 and FY2008 for Women’s Business Centers, and on what appropriation the SBA based its conclusion that it could not fund new centers.

* Implementation. Please describe, in detail, the plan the SBA expects to follow in implementing the new renewal grant program. Please be prepared to tell us when [with specific dates] the SBA expects to publish the announcement, how soon the awards would be made after enactment of SBA’s appropriations for FY2008, and when the actual funds will be disbursed.

It is the intent of this legislation that successful, established centers begin receiving grants as soon as possible. We recognize for this to occur, that it will require everyone to work together, and we assure you that we are fully committed to working with you. Women business owners are an integral and vital part of our economy, and Women’s Business Centers play an important role in supporting them.

We look forward to your response at the hearing this week.

Sincerely,

John Kerry
Olympia Snowe

Sources: Peace Corps Online [photo], U.S. Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship
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