In January, Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-ME) became chair of the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship. In addition to her work with small business, Snowe, who has represented Maine in the Senate since 1994 and spent 16 years as a member of the House of Representatives, also sits on the Select Committee on Intelligence; the Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation; and the Committee on Finance. We corresponded with Snowe via e-mail about her plans to help small-business owners across the country during the course of her post.
Why did you want to be chair of the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship?
Sen. Olympia J. Snowe: The small-business sector plays a particularly central role in Maine's economy, as it does in the nation's economy as a whole. In short, it is the economic lifeblood of my state. Of Maine's 37,000 employers, about 97 percent are small businesses with fewer than 20 employees, and these businesses account for the creation of virtually every new job. Entrepreneurship also prospers in Maine, with an estimated 73,000 self-employed workers.
Nationally, small businesses are the most successful tool we have for job creation, providing roughly 67 percent of initial job opportunities in the country. I think it's fair to say that small businesses serve as our original, and finest, job training program, and that's an important role to play in our nation's economy.
What are the major issues you see facing small businesses today?
Snowe: Assuring access to affordable health insurance for small businesses and their employees, including farmers, fishermen and entrepreneurs; creating more jobs and opportunities for workers; providing regulatory and tax relief for small businesses; helping small businesses enter foreign markets so they can expand and grow; encouraging further growth and entrepreneurship in women-owned small businesses; improving access to capital for small businesses; increasing access to and utilization of new technologies and e-commerce by small businesses; and assuring improved availability of worker education and training.
How do you hope to help business owners face those issues?
Snowe: As chair of the committee, I take pride in its close contact and constant dialogue with small-business owners from all across the country. First and foremost, we make it our mission to play the role of watchdog over federal policies affecting small businesses. In many cases, highlighting problems through hearings or other committee activities will lead to a correction of problems. Since our jurisdiction to review federal policies affecting small businesses is very broad, we often can work with agencies to find solutions and relief without enacting legislation.
However, when legislation is required to solve a problem outside the committee's jurisdiction, such as a health-care or tax matter, it is not unusual for any of our members to introduce a bill independently and to seek support from other senators who serve on the appropriate committees with jurisdiction to change the law.
What are your immediate goals for your position and the committee?
Snowe: The Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship has begun work on a major reauthorization of the small-business assistance programs administered by the SBA. As part of this process, the committee will carefully review a range of programs, from the 7(a) Guaranteed Loan Program to the Small Business Innovation Research Program to the HUBZone Program for distressed communities. The reauthorization will enable us to determine whether the SBA's programs are operating efficiently and in the best interest of small-business owners. If needed, the committee can and will make specific changes to these programs in order to better serve the small-business community. At the same time, as chair of the committee I will be working to ensure that the small-business sector is not left behind as Congress works to get the economy growing again.
What are your long-term goals?
Snowe: I have introduced S.158, the Small Business Expensing Improvement Act of 2003, to free up capital and empower small firms to make investments that will help rebuild the economy and create new jobs. I am extremely pleased that the administration has heard the pleas of small businesses for greater expensing and is supporting this change in the tax code.
S.158 would triple the current expensing limit to $75,000 and broaden the phase-out of that provision. Moreover, it would achieve two important objectives: Qualifying businesses will be able to write off more of their equipment purchases immediately, instead of waiting five, seven or more years to recover their costs through depreciation. Additionally, more businesses will qualify for this benefit because the phase-out limit will be increased from the current $200,000 to $325,000 in new equipment purchases.
As a member of the Senate Finance Committee, I am encouraging our chairman, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), to expedite consideration of S.158, and I hope it will be included in the growth package that we expect the Senate to take up this spring. What this bill means for the small-business sector is substantial savings in both money and time spent complying with complex depreciation rules in the tax code. Additionally, new equipment put in place as a result of this relief will contribute to renewed growth in productivity, which is essential to the long-term vitality of our economy.
Recently you introduced the Independent Office of Advocacy Act of 2003, S.818. What does this bill entail?
Snowe: S.818 is a bill to establish a clear mandate that the Office of Advocacy must fight on behalf of small businesses, regardless of the position taken by the president or the administration by:
- Requiring the federal budget to include a separate account for the Office of Advocacy, rather than drawing funds from the general operating account of the SBA, which will free the Chief Counsel for Advocacy from the current requirement to seek approval from the SBA Administrator to hire staff; and
- Providing that any funds appropriated for the Office of Advocacy will remain available without fiscal-year limitation until they are expended. This change will give the chief counsel the flexibility to preserve precious funds by carrying budget allocations from one fiscal year to the next, while ensuring that funds are spent only for work critical to the Office of Advocacy's mission.
Recently you asked for a funding boost for HUBZones (Historically Underutilized Business Zones). Why is this an important issue for yourself and small businesses?
Snowe: Although the federal government has numerous economic development programs, the HUBZone Program is unique among them because it directs federal contracting dollars to the nation's most distressed areas of high poverty and high unemployment. Under the HUBZone Program, the government acts as a customer, buying goods and services from small firms that have located in HUBZones and hired at least 35 percent of their employees from HUBZone areas.
Unfortunately, consistent underfunding has threatened the HUBZone Program's ability to meet its intended goals. Although Congress has authorized annual funding for the HUBZone Program ranging from $5 million to $10 million since Fiscal Year 1998, actual appropriations have never exceeded $2 million annually. Boosting HUBZone funding to $5 million would enable the SBA to provide better outreach to additional firms and additional HUBZone communities.
Rekindling economic growth will be difficult unless the federal government helps stimulate the small-business sector. Sacrificing funds for programs like HUBZones will only slow the economic recovery we all seek and hurt the very communities that face the biggest obstacles on the road to recovery.