Feb 12 2014

Cantwell Secures Obama Nominee Support for Small Business Export and Lending Programs

In hearing, Small Business Administration nominee backs initiatives to expand access to capital and new markets

Today, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) secured commitments from Maria Contreras-Sweet that if confirmed as Administrator at the Small Business Administration (SBA), she would support programs that help small businesses obtain access to capital and export products to new markets.

Cantwell specifically pointed to the importance of the 504 Debt Refinance Program that helps small businesses unlock their own equity to create and sustain jobs.  In her conversation with Contreras-Sweet, Cantwell also highlighted the successful State Trade and Export Promotion (STEP) program that has helped small businesses in Washington state access new markets to increased exports.

The statements came during a Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship nomination hearing. Contreras-Sweet was nominated by President Barack Obama to head the agency on January 15, 2014.

View a video of today’s exchange here.

“One of the things in that Small Business Jobs Act of 2010 was the 504 refinancing program and that refinancing expired in 2012,” said Cantwell at today’s hearing.  “I wanted to have your thoughts on reauthorizing that section of the bill, would support the reauthorization of that?”

Contreras-Sweet responded: “I, from the community, understand the importance of the product. So if I am confirmed I’d be delighted to work with you and explore ways in which we can continue to fill that important gap.”

Cantwell replied: “So would you support the reauthorization of that?”

“If given the opportunity, I support the product,” said Contreras-Sweet. “I think it’s an important tool for Americans today.”

Cantwell is a cosponsor of S.289, The CREED Act, passed unanimously by the Small Business Committee last spring. The Act would reinstate the SBA 504 Debt Refinance Program, which expired on September 27, 2012. The program helps small business owners improve cash flow by allowing refinancing under the SBA 504 loan program to lock in long-term mortgage payments at lower rates. In Fiscal Year 2012, before the program expired, Washington state lenders issued $79 million worth refinancing loans to small businesses in Washington state.

Contreras-Sweet also agreed with Cantwell that the State Trade and Export Promotion (STEP) program is essential to helping small businesses grow and compete in a global economy. Cantwell cited several small businesses that STEP has helped in Washington state. Those include Slingshot Sports in Stevenson, a sports equipment manufacturer which increased total exports between 60 and 70 percent with help from STEP. Silicon Forest Electronics, an electronics manufacturer in Vancouver, has also used STEP to help connect with customers abroad – that helped increase sales activities by as much as $12 million for 2014-2015.

“I want to get your thoughts on the STEP program and whether you support continuing that or growing that effort,” said Cantwell at today’s hearing. “We have huge opportunities to the Asian market in the Pacific Northwest and we certainly want to see us use these promotions to help meet the agenda that the administration has on doubling the number of exports out of the United States – certainly small businesses can play a very big role in that.”

Contreras-Sweet responded: “So to the extent that we can have programs like STEP helping them, partnering with them, and providing them the right tools – I think we can strengthen our ability to compete globally. Again, this is where the innovations are taking place and so why not let the small business have a piece of that pie, a bite of that apple, make sure they’re also partaking of the international globalized opportunities that are presenting themselves in an increasing way every year. I believe in the program, I think it’s an important program, and the tools in it support small business expansion in the international economies.”

On the Small Business Committee, Cantwell has been a Senate leader in expanding opportunities for small businesses to grow and create jobs. Along with Landrieu, Cantwell played a pivotal role in the Senate passage of the landmark Small Business Jobs Act (SBJA) in 2010, which expanded small businesses’ access to capital.

Cantwell was also instrumental to the creation of the STEP program, authorized under the SBJA. The STEP program helps small businesses increase exports by boosting the amount and value of their products going to overseas markets. In Washington state, the program has assisted more than 500 companies close $136 million in new export sales, supporting more than 2,000 jobs.

Along with STEP, Cantwell has fought for investments that help businesses export to more clients overseas. During 2012 she worked for months to successfully reauthorize the Export-Import Bank until 2014. The Export-Import Bank has supported $66 billion in sales from 172 Washington state exporters over the past five years. Of these 172 exporters, 121 were small businesses. Across the nation, the bank’s financing for smaller exporters has risen more than 70 percent the last three years. More than 85 percent of its transactions are with small businesses. 

A full transcript of today’s hearing follows.

Senator Cantwell: Thank you Madam Chair. I too want to thank you for your tremendous leadership at the Small Business Committee. Not only do I consider you a personal friend – but a giant advocate for small businesses. When our country had one of our biggest economic downturns, there was a lot of discussion about how to help the big banks. In fact, in my opinion, we kind of gave them access to the keys to the Treasury. Something I didn’t quite appreciate was the fact of how that was done. But you were steadfast in the Small Business Jobs Act of 2010 in advocating for small businesses – trying to come up with ways to protect them as they were getting hammered by new regulations and this economic downturn when performing lines of credit were pulled right out from under people. I just could not have been more proud of your leadership in this committee. People didn’t realize what an advocate Mary Landrieu was when she took over this committee and I actually feel like she put the small business activities in that battle of 2010.

We had to work with Senator Voinovich and Senator LeMieux to finally get a bill that tried to protect small business. It was the cry in our country at that time that small businesses were just getting hammered on this downturn and really in some ways almost being a scapegoat for what had happened at a much larger level. I don’t think a lot of these small banks or even the businesses that they were serving were involved in derivative activity but yet they were the ones that took it right in the chin. So I am very proud of your leadership on that and very proud of your leadership on this committee and I know you’re not going far. The fact that we both serve on the Energy Committee and this committee, we’ll certainly be looking for ways to work together. So thank you for that.

Maria Contreras-Sweet, thank you so much for your willingness to serve. You’ve shown you have a command of these policy issues that we’re going to be looking forward to your activities on and I personally like that you’re a good marketer. Anybody that knows push-and- pull technology marketing is okay by me, because to me a lot of the Small Business Administration is both push and pull. I mean part of it is getting people to understand what programs we have, what they can take advantage of, and obviously getting them to work with us on those that need to be improved. One of the things in that Small Business Jobs Act of 2010 was the 504 Refinancing Program and that refinancing expired in 2012.  I wanted to have your thoughts on reauthorizing that section of the bill.

Maria Contreras-Sweet, Nominee for Administrator of Small Business Administration: Thank you for speaking to 504. It’s an important product. To the extent that you were able to offer up the ReFi program, let me just tell you from my personal experience it was very well received at the onset. At the very beginning, I must say that we were trying to work our way through and trying to understand it a little bit. But once we got it down that is about when it sunset, and so we were a little disappointed about that. As I understand it now the president is supportive. I, from the community, understand the importance of the product. So if I am confirmed I’d be delighted to work with you and explore ways in which we can continue to fill that important gap.

Senator Cantwell: So would you support the reauthorization of that?

Maria Contreras-Sweet: If given the opportunity, I support the product. I think it’s an important tool for Americans today.

Senator Cantwell: Thank you. Another program – and again – appreciate your perspective on small businesses and small business exports. My colleague from New Jersey mentioned technology and the State Trade Export Promotion program, the STEP program. Are you familiar with that program?

Maria Contreras-Sweet: I am, the partnership with the states?

Senator Cantwell: Yes, I am a huge believer in where we are right now in the context of the information age in a lot of products and services. But you have to add capital. The US has a lot of these businesses, so the STEP Program in my state has been beneficial from many technology aspects. They helped an export program in my state grow to help hundreds of new people; including Swype technology that right at the critical moment they got access to the Asian market. Just recently some aviation companies, Silicon Forest Electronics, a company in Southwest Washington got access to some aviation sales because of the STEP program. Small companies, Slingshot Sports in Stevenson, Washington, a very small company, got access and helped grow their business. I want to get your thoughts on the STEP program and whether you support continuing that or growing that effort. We have huge opportunities to the Asian market in the Pacific Northwest and we certainly want to see us use these promotions to help meet the agenda that the administration has on doubling the number of exports out of the United States – certainly small businesses can play a very big role in that.

Maria Contreras-Sweet: If you’ll indulge me, Senator. First, I just wanted to thank the state of Washington. When California was going through its energy crisis, the state of Washington really came forward and helped us through and I will never forget that. So thank you to all of the good people in the state of Washington for all that they did for Californians in that very difficult period.

Next, let me just speak to STEP. What I like about STEP is that it has three important components, in my view. Again, just from personal experience. I really appreciate that somebody can come in and get some counseling through a university – the partnerships with universities – that it is state sponsored so that there’s a relationship and a partnership with the state governments. And many instances this is where many of the small business are a little more comfortable. So I appreciate that. I appreciate that it provides for introductions, in many instances internationally. And so there’s so many good components around STEP and in a globalized economy, we have to find ways to make sure that small businesses, too, can compete in that. There is currently in my view with technology and all the other tools that are available to us, the lowest barrier to entry for a small business opportunity. So to the extent that we can have programs like STEP helping them, partnering with them, and providing them the right tools – I think we can strengthen our ability to compete globally. Again, this is where the innovations are taking place and so why not let the small business have a piece of that pie, a bite of that apple, make sure they’re also partaking of the international globalized opportunities that are presenting themselves in an increasing way every year. I believe in the program, I think it’s an important program, and the tools in it support small business expansion in the international economies.

Senator Cantwell: Great. Thank you.

Maria Contreras-Sweet: Thank you.

###