Today, new Small Business Administration administrator Maria Contreras-Sweet said her agency is committed to "doing everything in our power" to help businesses and individuals affected by the massive landslide that killed at least 35 people, destroyed dozens of homes, and blocked a state highway outside of Oso, Washington.
Contreras-Sweet, on her second full day as SBA Administrator, testified before the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship and its new chairwoman, Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), about the SBA's 2015 budget request.
Cantwell focused the hearing on top priorities including investing in disaster assistance loans; continuing successful export-assistance programs; bolstering small business lending and addressing a drop in lending to minority-owned businesses.
Cantwell encouraged the SBA Administrator to ensure that impacted businesses across the State Route 530 corridor are informed they are eligible for disaster lending programs in the aftermath of the mudslide.
"Oso and Darrington and the nearby community of Arlington have seen major transportation impacts since the 530 corridor is a community in and of itself," Cantwell said. She urged Contreras-Sweet "to help small businesses weather higher transportation costs, and the impacts of decreased business that are likely to last months, if not years."
"My first meeting on my first day at SBA was on disaster relief -- meeting with disaster relief teams to discuss our response to this tragedy," Contreras-Sweet told Cantwell. "All of us at SBA are committed to doing everything in our power to be a resource for those affected by this terrible natural disaster."
SBA assisted more than 46,000 businesses and individuals through $2.8 billion in disaster loans in 2013, Contreras-Sweet said.
Contreras-Sweet said SBA provides three forms of low-interest disaster relief loans. Those loans became available to impacted Washington state citizens after President Obama declared the mudslide to be a major disaster. They include:
* Businesses that sustain property damage.
* Businesses that sustain economic loss.
* Loans of up to $200,000 to homeowners for damage not covered by insurance.
"This disaster is complicated on its own and deserves the best that government has to offer, so I certainly appreciate Ms. Contreras-Sweet -- thank you for your offer of help and support," Cantwell said. "I think disaster relief is a very critical aspect. Too often these disaster victims fall through the cracks and get caught between FEMA and SBA, and SBA and the Department of Agriculture. I want to make sure we continue to improve the service and coordination."
The Obama administration has requested $865 million for the SBA's 2015 budget, including $155 million for administration of disaster assistance programs. The budget request would enable the SBA to back more than $32 billion in the SBA's popular loan programs that support 688,650 jobs across the country.
"Economic loss is also something else we can help with," Contreras-Sweet said. "We want to make sure they understand what we are capable of doing. And so we are doing everything we can to get the word out, to give them adequate information, so that all resources of the SBA are being brought to bear. This is when we should shine the most."
Other topics that came up during the hearing:
* On lending: Cantwell said she supports the Obama administration's request to reauthorize the 504 loan refinancing program. She cited Schmitt's Sheet Metal in Port Angeles, Wash., a company that used the program to refinance and save $4,000 per month. She called for increasing the SBA's popular 7 (a) loan program to meet growing demand.
* On minority-owned businesses: Cantwell said she is concerned with a drop in SBA lending to minority-owned businesses. "I want to talk about the fee waivers for small loans that might help close the gap or might open more doors and more opportunities," Cantwell said.
* On access to capital: Cantwell said the committee under her leadership would undertake an analysis of small business access to capital -- which was identified during the hearing by Dr. Winslow Sargeant, who heads SBA's Office of Advocacy, as the top concern of small businesses.
* On exports: Cantwell said she was disappointed the State Trade and Export Promotion (STEP), program -- designed to help small businesses export products -- received no funding in the President's budget request. "With only 1 percent of small businesses exporting, SBA should have resources devoted to this trade initiative," Cantwell said. In Washington state, about 40 percent of jobs are tied to trade. Contreras-Sweet also said she was concerned with small businesses' ability to engage with international markets, and pledged to address the issue. Contreras-Sweet confirmed to Cantwell that she would work to ensure that the SBA fully staffs U.S. Export Assistance Centers.