Small business sees hope on liability insurance

Lights lowered, the color guard marched past a sea of small-business faces. For a week, the delegates to the White House Conference on Small Business were center stage in this city. Today they returned home, filled with optimism about the future of small business. Now comes the hard part, as even Sen. Robert Dole (R) of Kansas, the final speaker, cautioned. Noting that he supported many of the delegates' 60 recommendations, he said, ``It's one thing to issue the recommendations . . . but you have to follow through.''

Following through may be harder than the delegates think. The White House has not been a close ally of the small business community, despite its recent pronouncements to the contrary. Gillian Rudd, president of Levine & Rudd, a marketing company here, described the White House attitude as ``benign neglect or indifference.''

One of the top issues for delegates here is the survival of the Small Business Administration, which the Reagan administration has tried to dismantle. The President announced this week that he would appoint a new administrator and was committed to an independent agency. But many are suspicious.

Small businesses may have trouble with one top priority -- keeping government from mandating benefits for employees. While Senator Dole said there would be bipartisan support for most of their goals, this priority was conspicuously absent from his remarks. The House and Senate both have bills requiring benefits such as maternity and paternity leave, and reportedly fairly strong support for the bills.

But the delegates shouted their approval when Dole voiced his support in for tackling an overwhelming concern of small business: liability insurance. Robert de Mott, president of the Executive Committee, a group of executives for small and medium businesses, described one $7.5 million company that saw its insurance costs go from $17,000 to $205,000 in two years, and another company with $17,000 in profits whose insurance got bumped up to $50,000. ``That man is no longer in business,'' he said.

Dole's commitment to bringing the issue to the floor before the end of this session, ``is the greatest breakthrough we've ever had,'' Mr. de Mott said.

Another key concern for small business, as ranked by a vote of the 1,823 delegates, was prohibiting ``unfair competition'' in which nonprofit organizations use their tax-exempt status to offer products and services that small businesses sell. Jerry Brong, head of Community Computer Centers in Pullman, Wash., says that he simply cannot match the prices and the cost efficiency of his main competitor, Washington State University.

A year ago, he says, there were four microcomputer dealers in his region, but ``now I'm the last, and I filed for Chapter 11 last month.''

Other recommendations included a balanced budget amendment; line-item veto for the president; a cabinet-level department of international trade and investment; and promoting entrepreneurial education in American schools.

Small business is dealing with forces it cannot entirely control: tax reform, budget restraint that could cut back contracts, and a volatile dollar that determines whether they can compete on the world market. But the delegates remain optimistic. Their main liability, they say, is also their main asset: Their size lets them adjust to change more quickly.

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