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Searching for that ever-elusive ‘regulatory fairness’

Regulatory fairness. For some that sounds like an oxymoron. For small business it’s a dream they’ve long felt unattainable.

“On the national level on regulatory and legislative issues they go off the deep end,” said Greg Kennedy, whose family owns two dry cleaners in Tupelo.

Kennedy said keeping up with the required paper work from federal agencies like the Occupational Safety & Health Administration, the Internal Revenue System and others could require him to hire a full-time person if he tried to just fill out all the paperwork in the time frame the agencies prefer. He said he runs a tight ship and gets the work done but maybe just not quite exactly when they would like.

“I try to do it all myself, but if I tried to do it how they want it I would have to hire a secretary and that would raise my costs and I would have to raise my prices,” he said. In a competitive field where dry cleaners are nearly as plentiful as dandelions in spring, that might not be such a good idea.

To help him wade through, decipher and decode the mounds of paper work, Kennedy said he relies on an industry trade group and a regular newsletter called National Clothesline which tracks and publishes any pertinent “legal, legislative or speculative” actions in order to make sure he stays compliant with all the rules.

“Of course you have to keep up with what the industry provides you,” he said.

Overall, he gives government a poor grade when it comes to how it treats small businesses like his.

“If they wanted to they could really make my life impossible,” he said.

In a roundabout way, the federal government knows how much of a pain in the tush they (to use the more personal pronoun) or it (that helps dehumanize the behemoth) can be, and as a recognition of that created the Regulatory Fairness Program, a national small business ombudsman and 10 Fairness Boards as part of the 1996 Small Business Regulatory Enforcement Fairness Act.

Some business groups have complained that RegFair, as it is commonly referred to, has done or will be able to do very little.

Peter W. Barca, a former Mid-West regional administrator for the U.S. Small Business Administration who was named the national ombudsman in November 1996, called the criticism of some unfair. He said those opinions are particularly off-putting in light of the fact that the program has been in place for such a short time.

As for the criticism directed at the productivity of the Fairness Boards, where each one’s membership is comprised of business owners appointed by President Bill Clinton and meet regularly to hear small businesses complaints, Barca was straightforward.

“These are company presidents, not full-time government employees,” he said. “They have been very generous with their time.”

In fact, the Fairness Boards are perhaps one of the most unique features of the entire program, he said, because the individual members “bring to bear from the private perspective of what they have to deal with everyday.”

In Barca’s most recent report on March 4 before the U.S. House of Representatives and the Subcommittee on Regulatory Reform and Paperwork Reduction, Barca gave a fairly upbeat assessment of the programs accomplishments to date.

Some of those included:

• The identification of four common problem areas business are encountering with regulatory compliance, including getting conflicting message from different agencies, fear of retaliation for complaining and a disregard for the economic impact of the regulations.

• The creation of 10 recommendations to federal agencies to improve communications with small business and help them comply with regulations.

• Identifying and beginning a dialogue with 34 government agencies that have substantial regulatory power over small business.

Exactly how well is small business taking to the RegFair program? Overall, Barca said he is pleased.

As of early March, the RegFair program had received 735 calls to its toll-free telephone line and over 56,000 “hits” or visits to its Internet page on the World Wide Web.

Businesses wanting to voice their feelings about specific agencies or regulations can do so either through visiting one of the regulatory meetings of the Fairness Boards or through a specially created Federal Agency Appraisal Form. In the first year of the program, Barca said the agency has received requests for more than 110 forms and has subsequently determined that only about a third of them so far meet the requirements established by SBREFA.

Barca said increasing the number of appraisal forms is something he hopes to see over time as the program becomes more established and well-known.

“A lot of times the difference in dealing with government is simply knowing where to turn,” Barca said. “We want to be a service for people and if we can do that we can be effective.”

But Barca’s office is also working to try and help federal agencies realize the impact their work has on small business. In fact, working to address some agency reforms was one of the first priorities for the program’s first year.

That’s why all of the 10 recommendations made by his office last year dealt specifically with changes federal agencies could address to make themselves more small business friendly, he said.

One of the most important of those is simply placing an executive summary on the cover of every major notice sent to business that outlines whether or not it applies to their business, whether mandatory or voluntary and what is the regulation’s purpose.

To get the agencies on the same page with the new program, RegFair identified 34 agencies that had regulatory power over small business and sent letters asking them to inform their customers about the RegFair program.

Response from the federal agencies has varied widely, Barca said. Barca said just over 23 have responded. The Department of Defense, is still arguing the point and it may be required of Congress to solve the argument, Barca said.

But at least one agency, OSHA, has become a poster child for the program, Barca said. The agency challenged its offices to become more small business friendly and at least one OSHA office in Colorado took the challenge to heart. The office worked with the National Association of Homebuilders and helped condense thousands of pages of regulations into an easy-to-read 67- page booklet called Homesafe.

“The point is it can be done,” Barca said. “Small business and the federal government can work together. It doesn’t have to be divisive.”

To contact the National Ombudsman Peter Barca, or for more information on the Regulatory Fairness Program, call 888.Reg.Fair, or visit the U.S.Small Business Administration Web site at www.sba.gov.

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