Federal lawmakers approved a number of small-business initiatives in the waning hours before the start of the four-week congressional summer break this weekend, including bills aimed at boosting disaster recovery loans and reducing energy costs.
Late Friday, the Senate unanimously passed a bill that boosts maximum federal disaster loans by $500,000 to $2 million. The legislation, which was sparked by shortcomings in disaster aid for Gulf Coast businesses following Hurricane Katrina, comes days after the collapse of a major interstate highway bridge near downtown Minneapolis.
The Small Business Disaster Response and Loan Improvement Act creates a new presidential declaration for "Catastrophic National Disasters," enabling the Small Business Administration to issue economic injury loans immediately after a disaster.
It also allows banks to make loans directly to disaster victims with an 85 percent government guarantee, while establishing a short-term relief program for business owners awaiting longer-term federal aid or insurance payments.
"One of the important lessons, of Katrina and Rita is that we need the Small Business Administration to be nimble, effective, and timely in disbursing loans following a disaster," Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), a co-sponsor of the bill, of said in a statement. She called the move a "huge step forward" in reforming the SBA's disaster recovery program, which was widely criticized in the aftermath of Katrina two years ago.
"Small businesses are a vital part of Louisiana's economy, and after the hurricanes of 2005, small businesses suffered greatly," Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), said in a statement. Vitter said the bill will improve how quickly disaster victims receive their loans.
Earlier in the week, the Senate also adopted an amendment to the Children Health Insurance Program bill requiring the SBA to team up with other federal agencies to better educate the nation's small-business owners, employees, and the self-employed about eligibility and enrollment requirements for the State Children's Health Insurance Program, or SCHIP.
"More than two million kids are eligible for SCHIP, but they aren’t yet enrolled, and many of them are the children of small business employees or the self-employed," Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship, said in a statement.
On Saturday, House lawmakers passed an energy independence package, which includes provisions aimed at reducing the impact of higher energy costs on small businesses.
The Small Energy Efficient Business Act, which was approved by the House Small Business Committee earlier this year, provides loans and education programs looking to become more energy efficient. It also boosts investment in the development and production of alternative fuel sources through the Small Business Investment Corporation.
"This bill focuses not only on supply, but it also focuses on usage," said committee chairwoman Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-N.Y.). "Small businesses are leaders in developing new technologies to spur efficiency."