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SBA claims progress on women-owned business program

Small business advocates say they have yet to see the details of a regulatory proposal the agency is circulating, and urge legislation to speed up implementation.

The Small Business Administration on Thursday announced it is circulating a proposal that will pave the way for implementation of a program to help women-owned small businesses win more government contracts. But advocates of the program say they have yet to see any details.

Regulatory changes are necessary before the program, mandated by Congress seven years ago to help agencies reach a goal of giving 5 percent of contracting dollars to women-owned small businesses, can take off. SBA officials announced Thursday that they had submitted for interagency review a comprehensive rule to govern the program. The same day, SBA Administrator Steve Preston testified before the House Small Business Committee that the agency was doing everything it could to enact the plan. "I agree that it is taking a long time, and it's taking too long, and it's taking longer certainly than we expected it would," Preston said at the hearing. "So I share your frustration, and I understand it."

Preston said the agency is dedicated to increasing opportunities for women-owned small businesses through increased accountability and transparency, support from agency district offices and better technology to match agencies with the best women-owned businesses.

Margot Dorfman, chief executive officer at the Women's Chamber of Commerce, however, is skeptical of the SBA's dedication.

"The Small Business Administration has shown a lack of commitment to the women's program that this very committee has designed," Dorfman testified. "It has been nearly seven years, and it looks like it'll be more than seven years." An SBA spokeswoman refused to provide specifics on the new rule, and Dorfman said Friday she also is struggling to get information on what is being proposed. The SBA says it is required by law to submit the rule for interagency review before releasing it for public comment, but Dorfman said the review process was supposed to take place months ago while the agency was waiting for a report by the RAND Corp.

"The SBA has tried every way possible to avoid compliance with this law," Dorfman said.

According to the SBA, women-owned small businesses have been winning an increasing share of federal procurement dollars -- 3.4 percent in fiscal year 2006, up 0.3 percent from 2005. Dorfman, however, said women-owned businesses lose $5.6 billion every year that the program is not implemented.

The Women's Chamber is asking that the committee introduce legislation compelling SBA to speed up the program.

"Why should Congress not act?" said Rep. Nydia Velázquez, D-N.Y., chairwoman of the committee, on Thursday. "We will."