Mr. President, I am pleased to introduce today the Military Reservist and Veteran Small Business Reauthorization and Opportunity Act. As the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship, I am gratified that I was able to work with Ranking Member Senator SNOWE on behalf of the 25 million veterans currently in America, including over 1 million who have left military service since September 11, 2001. As the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan continue, the number of veterans, including service disabled veterans, will increase and reservists will continue to carry more of the burden then ever before. As veterans and reservists reenter civilian life, the small business programs provided by the Federal Government will become even more critical. I am serious about addressing the problems affecting veterans and reservists who wish or are already engaged in small business and this bill is another step forward in doing so. The Military Reservist and Veteran Small Business Reauthorization and Opportunity Act of 2007 reauthorizes the veteran programs in the Small Business Administration. Specifically, this legislation increases the funding authorization for the Office of Veteran Business Development from $2 million today to $2.5 million over three years. In light of the large numbers of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and increased responsibilities placed on this office by Executive Order 13360, it is high time that the Office of Veteran Business Development receive the funding levels that it needs.

The bill also creates an Interagency Task Force to improve coordination between agencies in administrating veteran small business programs. One of the biggest complaints that our Committee heard at the “Assessing Federal Small Business Assistance Programs for Veterans and Reservists” hearing held on January 31st was that Federal agencies do not work together in reaching out to veterans and informing them about small business programs. This task force is an attempt to improve that. The task force is composed of representatives from Small Business Administration, Department of Defense, Department of Veterans Affairs, Department of Labor, General Services Administration, Office of Management Budget and four veterans service organizations appointed by the President. The task force will focus on increasing veterans’ small business success, including procurement and franchising opportunities, access to capital, and other types of business development assistance.

This bill also permanently extends the SBA Advisory Committee on Veterans Business Affairs. The committee was created to serve as an independent source of advice and policy recommendations to the SBA, the Congress, and the President. The veteran small business owners who serve on this committee provide a unique perspective which is sorely needed at this challenging time. Unfortunately, continuing uncertainty about the Committee’s future has, at times, distracted the committee from focusing on its core function. Therefore, I have called for its permanent extension. It is clear to me that more needs to be done to address the issues facing veterans and reservists, and the role this committee plays will continue to be important.

Additionally, I have taken a number of steps to better serve the reservists who are serving their country abroad while their businesses are suffering at home. Over the past decade, the Department of Defense has increased its reliance on the National Guard and reserves. This has intensified since September 11, 2001, and increased deployments are expected to continue. The affect of this increase on reservists and small businesses continues to remain of concern. A 2003 GAO report indicated that 41 percent of reservists lost income when mobilized. This had a higher effect on self-employed reservists, 55 percent of whom lost income.

In 1999, I created the Military Reservist Economic Injury Disaster Loan, MREIDL, program to provide loans to small businesses that incur economic injury as a result of an essential employee being called to active duty. However, since 2002, fewer than 300 of these loans have been approved by the SBA, despite record numbers of reservists being called to active duty. It is clear that changes need to be made, so that reservists are informed about the availability of the MREIDL program and that the program better meets their needs.

At the hearing on January 31, we heard suggestions for a number of changes which would improve the Military Reservist Economic Injury Disaster Loan program, and I have included those changes in this bill. They include increasing the application deadline for such a loan from 90 days to 1 year following the date of discharge; creating a pre-deployment loan approval process; and improved outreach and technical assistance.

This bill also increases to $50,000 the amount SBA can disburse without requiring collateral under the MREIDL program. Reservist families have already sacrificed enough when a family member goes away to serve their country and when their business is harmed as a result. This loan program would allow reservist dependent businesses to access the capital they need to stay afloat without having to sacrifice beyond the service of the key employees. In order to give reservists time to repay the loans, the non-collaterized loan created in this bill would not accumulate interest or require payments for one year or until after the deployment ends, whichever is longer.

While addressing the funding needs of reservists is essential, I also want to make sure that reservists receive the technical and management assistance they need to succeed. For that reason, this bill also includes the establishment of the Reservists Enterprise Transition and Sustainability Task Force. This grant program would allow Small Business Development Centers, Women’s Business Centers and veteran centers to compete for grants to create programs that help small businesses prepare for and cope with the mobilization of reservist-employees and owners.

There are two more provisions which will help this Nation’s service members. One section of the bill will require the SBA to give priority to MREIDL loans during loan processing. Another provision will give activated service members an extension of any SBA time limitations equal to the time spent on active duty. This will make it easier for service members to serve their country while continuing to meet their obligations at home.

Lastly, this bill calls for two reports. One report will look at the needs of service-disabled veterans who are interested in becoming entrepreneurs. As a result of the war on terror and improved medicine, we are seeing more service-disabled veterans than we have seen in decades. For some service-disabled veterans, entrepreneurship is the best or only way of achieving economic independence. Therefore, it is essential that we understand and take steps to address the needs of the service-disabled veteran entrepreneur or small business owner.

This bill also calls for a study to investigate how to improve relations between reservists and their employers. In January, the Committee heard that recent changes by the Department of Defense to policies regulating the length and frequency of reservist deployments is harming the ability of reservists to find jobs and the ability of small business owners to continue hiring them. Witnesses testified about reservists being turned down or not considered for jobs because they are reservists. I have heard reservists talk about being pressured to leave the reserves if they would like to continue to advance at work. I have also heard the concerns of small business owners who want to support service members; however, they cannot do so if it means the survival of their business. Understanding more about this issue is important and essential to making sure that policymakers can continue to support citizen soldiers and the small businesses that employ them across the Nation.

Veterans possess great technical skills and valuable leadership experience, but they require financial resources and small business training to turn that potential into a viable enterprise. A recent report by the Small Business Administration stated that 22 percent of veterans plan to start or are starting a business when they leave the military. For service-disabled veterans, this number rises to 28 percent. This bill is another step forward in providing the necessary resources for veterans and reservists to succeed in starting or growing a small business.

I ask unanimous consent that the text of the bill be printed in the record.