Senators hear concerns with federal contracting in Alaska

Senators Lisa Murkowski, Jim Risch of Idaho, and Dan Sullivan at a Senate Field Hearing with the Small Business Administration in Anchorage (Photo: Zachariah Hughes – Alaska Public Media)

Three U.S. Senators were in Anchorage Friday to discuss how the Small Business Administration can help Alaska companies. The focus was overwhelmingly on how to keep federal contracts flowing to businesses that take advantage of one particular special program.

Inside Anchorage’s Loussac Library, Idaho Republican Jim Risch, who chairs the Senate’s Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee, sat beside Alaska’s Sen. Dan Sullivan. They were eventually joined by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who was late because of military exercises in the air space over Anchorage.

“I would have been here sooner, but my plane was diverted due to the practicing Blue Angels,” Murkowski said to laughter from the crowd.

The Senate field hearing was largely an opportunity to hear from federal officials and stakeholders in Alaska about how to improve the 8(a) contracting. That’s the program to help small businesses that are owned or controlled by what the SBA defines as “economically and socially disadvantaged” groups, a designation that includes Alaska Native corporations of any size.

Associate Administrator Rob Wong with the SBA told the hearing he wants to learn how to better serve entities that most utilize the 8(a) program.

“Alaska Natives, Hawaii Natives, and tribes are our power users of our 8(a) certification,” Wong said during testimony.

In recent years, Congress required the Defense Department to impose extra scrutiny on sole-source contracts worth $20 million or more awarded to ANC’s, which critics complain has made it harder for companies to access lucrative business deals.

One of those critics is Senator Sullivan.

“Bureaucrats in the agency promulgate an avalanche of rules and red-tape to ‘help,'” Sullivan said during a long volley of statements in the first half of the hearing.

Sullivan wants to see fewer regulations in the 8(a) process, believing that such requirements keep businesses from even applying to the program because of all the paperwork.

A panel of small Alaska businesses gave testimony to the senators about problems navigating the 8(a) system. The barriers are hardly unique to ANC’s. Women and minority-owned businesses say there are abundant challenges to taking advantage of the program.

Among those offering testimony was Richard Peterson of the Central Council Tlingit Haida Indian Tribes, who told the senators that the 8(a) program is a vital means of support for the work smaller tribes do across Alaska, but there could be  improvements.

“We hope SBA will increase its good efforts to streamline and facilitate its application process. Right now we find the application process fairly cumbersome,” Peterson said.

According to data from the Native American Contractors Association, though the total  value of 8(a) contracts is up slightly for ANC’s and Tribal businesses, the value of sole-source and defense department contracts through the program is down over the last several years.