Facing a growing backlog of disaster loan applications in the Gulf Coast, the Small Business Administration is toning down its annual celebration of small business this year.

Like years past, SBA Expo '06 is set to recognize the nation's estimated 25 million small business owners with gala events, ceremonies, and awards -- only this time without the actual business expo.

The event, part of National Small Business Week, will not include the usual matchmaking sessions, business seminars, and town-hall meetings on issues effecting entrepreneurs. In addition, most of the awards ceremonies, usually held at night, are being replaced by breakfasts and luncheons, according to SBA spokesman Dennis Byrne.

President Bush, who spoke at the annual event in 2005 and has spotlighted small businesses in his State of the Union address and other speeches, is not yet confirmed.

"In the wake of Katrina and all the work we're engaged in this year, we've decided to scale it back a little," Byrne said, adding the decision was "not a budget issue."

Critics have attacked the Bush administration in recent weeks for proposing what they claim are sweeping cuts to the agency's operating budget for 2007.

Earlier this month, a report by Democrats on the House Small Business Committee said the proposed $624 million budget would force cuts of up to 80% to some 40 small business programs currently offered by the agency.

On March 16, the Senate passed a bipartisan amendment by Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship, adding an extra $130 million to SBA funding for disaster loans, venture capital programs, and veterans business development, among other initiatives.

Lloyd Chapman, a vocal SBA critic and head of the American Small Business League, a policy watchdog group based in Petaluma, Calif., said he believes the shrinking budget -- along with scaled-back events like Expo '06 -- reflect a broader attitude.

"Republicans want to get out of small-business funding altogether," Chapman said. "They've cut the budget and staff in half, and now they're blaming it for not operating properly" he said.

Apart from budget issues, the agency has also been heavily criticized for its handling of emergency disaster loans for small business in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

As of March 13, the agency had approved 86,200 loans out of a total of 276,400 applications filed since the storm hit the Gulf Coast region on Aug. 29, SBA figures show. Of these, 16,100 loans worth some $1.4 billion have been approved for local businesses, according to the agency.

SBA Expo '06 runs April 12-13 in Washington D.C.