The clock is ticking if you want to apply for bank loan with a Small Business Administration guarantee.

The incentive program – consisting of a 90 percent government guarantee on the SBA's flagship 7(a) loans for start-ups and small businesses, as well as a trim or total cut of the fees on 7(a) and 504 loans – was set to expire February 28. President Barack Obama signed an extension through March 28 into law last week.

Though Obama has proposed keeping the loan breaks through the end of the year, it's best not to wait another minute to apply – the deal runs out when the funding does. If that's not enough to get you moving, consider that the program has proved so popular that the agency has twice run out of money to supply it, first in November and then – despite Congress's last-minute infusion of cash in December – on February 22. So with the $60 million last week's legislation handed the SBA, the agency today starts working through a waiting list of the 652 loans totalling some $231 million that piled up after February 22. Before the Senate passed the bill, Senator Mary Landrieu, Democrat of Louisiana, spoke of a small-business owner on the waiting list who told the senator she'd have to lay off 27 workers if she did not obtain new financing.

Money for the original program – which helped to lend $22 billion to some 55,000 small businesses – was included in last year's economic stimulus bill. The 90 percent guarantee – up from the usual 75 percent – made the loans less risky for lenders, while also attracting borrowers through lower fees.

SBA Administrator Karen Mills said the program led average weekly loan approvals to leap by 87 percent compared to the weekly average before the passage of last year's American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The SBA estimates the new funding will support $1.8 billion in small business lending. 

Got a non-Recovery Act 7(a) or 504 loan and wondering about cancelling or resubmitting to take advantage of better terms? No can do. Nor can you have the fees waived retroactively. 

The extension doesn't affect other SBA Recovery Act programs, including the America's Recovery Capital Loan Program, which offers up to $35,000 in short-term relief to help small businesses ride out the recession. The ARC currently still has money, and will hand it out until it runs out or September 30, whichever comes first.

Landrieu, the chair of the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship, said after last week's bill was passed that the extension 'is a good first step to providing our small businesses with the tools they need to keep their doors open and growing.'

'I look forward to working my colleagues in the Senate to ensure these programs receive a longer extension,' she said.