By John F. Kerry

U.S. Special Packaging Inc.- homegrown small business of Leominster's own Ralph Castriotta and his daughter, Lynn- is just one of thousands upon thousands of small business success stories made possible- in part- by government guaranteed loans.

When the banks shied away from making loans to the Castriottas' fledgling business, they turned to the Small Business Administration, the only lender willing to be a catalyst in the business plans of millions of budding entrepreneurs, including those who brought us Ben & Jerry's ice cream.

Money from the SBA's government loan program helped the Castriottas get the money they needed for the their business to succeed in a competitive environment. The results are clear: today, U.S. Specialty Packaging Inc. serves over 20 large distributors up and down the Eastern Seaboard.

Ralph and Lynn Castriotta are not alone in their small business success story, nor in thespecial partnership they forged with a government that helped give them the tools to succeed. Small businesses are the backbone of our economy: They account for 97 percent of American businesses and employ over 50 percnet of our work force. Small businesses were responsible for three-quarters of the 22 million jobs created in the United States since 1992.

During the same years when we reined in spending and balanced the federal budget for the first time in a generation, efforts to leverage new small business growth and expand existing businesses were pivotal. Since 1992, more than $3.4 billion government dollars have assisted small businesses and, in Massachusetts alone, small business loans increased 240 percent.

This is an important time to evaluate where we have been as a country, and where we need to go to continue on a path of economic growth. Just like any business, the government should accurately assess those efforts that work andthose that do not. We want big economic growth, not big government.

When you make that judgment, one fact stands out: Government loans for small businesses have proved a successful tool in growing the economy. It would be unwise to walk away from our commitment to the business leaders at the community level who do the real work of creating jobs.

Regrettably, that is precisely the debate on Capitol Hill today. President Bush proposed a budget that walks away from the small business success stories of the past eight years- proposing to cut funding to the Small Business Administration by $166 million, slashing investments in government guaranteed loans. My Republican colleague on the Senate Small Business Committee, Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., and I continue to fight these cuts and insist on maintaining a federal commitment to small business loans and the entrepeneurialism they represent.

The choice is simple: Do we continue down a responsible course that invests in meaningful pro-business efforts such as loans for small businesses- or do we abandon the advances we have made in the past eight years and turn down a path that puts prosperity in danger just to pass a tax cut that leaves out 29 million taxpayers and provides almost no relief to small businesses?

The Bush tax proposal doesn't just leave out millions of taxpayers and many small businesses in need of relief, it's based on projected budget surpluses that won't even materialize for a decade- if they materialize at all.

Congress would do well to take another cue from the private sector. Businesses don't pay out dividends based on projections of what might happen 10 years from now. When you're responsible for keeping a business up and running, fiscal discipline is a must not a slogan. It should be no different for the government: years of deficit spending ran up the national debt and drove up interest rates that hurt small businesses, we should insist that we hold the line on budget discipline today.

These are important choices for the nation, and particularly for America's small business owners who deserve a government that is on their side. equipping and empowering entrepreneurs to open businesses, not closing doors.

Government doesn't create economic growth, but making the right choices can help leverage growth, just as the wrong choices can bring the economy to a standstill. At this pivotal time for the American economy, we should all insist that Congress have the right business plan in mind for America's small businesses- for small businesspeople like Leominster's Castriotta family and the next generation of small business entrepreneurs, the stakes couldn't be higher.

John F. Kerry represents Massachusetts in the U.S. Senate.