By Charlotte Crane

The best way to find out what's going on in Washington is often through those worrying over who will be on the tight end of the squeeze - concern usually prompting someone to rev up the "send" buttons for a flurry of alerts.

Currently, that applies to discussions over business assistance through the Small Business Administration, a hugely important economic issue.

Of concern: Whether discussions over program changes might suggest more is at play here than budget-pinching, election-year politicking or the commotion accompanying a Washington agency's attempt to improve its performance.

"Our sense is that this is the first turn in a long and winding road," responded Larry Strain, director of the University of West Florida Small Business Development Center - when asked his assessment. "It seems that everything is being tossed on the table, sometimes just to see what the reaction is."

He notes, too: Response to cuts in the administration's budget provides "a bully pulpit" for presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry, ranking member of the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship, who's generally championing higher funding for those small-business programs.

Here's what's happening:

Congress last week passed, and President Bush signed, bills to extend must-have fee authority through May 21 for the 504 program - an important, big-loan, business-building program, thus avoiding shutdown. (Florida 504 loans in the fourth calendar quarter were up 81 percent from a year ago.) Permanent authorization is still needed.

Structure of the SBA's 7(a) program is being reviewed - guarantees, ceilings and fees are under debate - even while budget increases are being sought. The program is the SBA workhorse - accounting for $82 million (about 82 percent of total) this fiscal year, through Feb. 29, just in North Florida. In January, the program was shut down for six days due to a delay in budget approval - and after a rush of borrowers hoping to get in under the gate.

Recently, SBA dropped the loan ceiling from $2 million to $750,000, to benefit more businesses. But there's still concern over this year's supply of loan money, considering the demand, says Strain.

Meanwhile, SBA favor appears to be leaning toward the Express Loan, part of the 7(a) program and rapidly gaining in popularity, and moving away from the Microloan program, currently allocated zip in the administration budget. The Express program is more efficient, with reduced paperwork a major factor, says SBA spokesman Doug Heye.

The $12 million proposed budget for Women's Business Centers may reserve too large a portion for new centers, too little for existing centers, potentially forcing cuts, says Rosemary Fraser, executive director of Pensacola's center.

Part of the overall drama is change under way at SBA which is no stranger to criticism.

"The SBA is making a good-faith effort to respond to calls for efficiency, while at the same time increasing delivery of small-business assistance," says Todd Kocourek, of Tallahassee, CEO of Florida First Capital Finance, a major Florida 504 lender.

Strain, meanwhile, sees no imminent threat to SBDC funding.

"The problem we face is we have not seen an increase since the '80s, and budgets are very stretched, especially in the face of unprecedented demand.'

CHARLOTTE CRANE

Business Editor Emeritus

Appearing Thursdays and Sundays in the News Journal.

Phone: 477-1542 E-mail: charlotte@charcrane.net