Small-business owners needing information on laws and regulations may now find it easier to get help from the federal government. The Small Business Administration (SBA) has launched BusinessLaw.gov (www.businesslaw.gov), a site that steers visitors to the best online sources of information about local, state, and federal laws and regulations that affect small businesses.
The idea evolved after Jim Van Wert, site manager of Business.gov (www.business.gov), another SBA Web site, noticed that many visitors had questions about licenses, permits, patents, workers’ compensation issues, and other regulatory matters. “Government inherently passes all kinds of laws and regulations and it has a major impact on businesses in terms of being able to find, understand, and comply with the laws and regulations,” says Mr. Van Wert, the SBA’s senior adviser for policy planning and e-government. Since its launch in December 2001, BusinessLaw.gov has received 1.5 million hits from users asking about federal regulations.
BusinessLaw.gov offers a centralized directory of links to local, state, and federal resources. The list covers such topics as starting a business, licenses and permits, e-commerce, managing employees, SBA loans, taxes, immigration issues, exporting – even finding a lawyer. “It is a gateway that takes you to the places that own and are responsible for the information,” Mr. Van Wert explains. “In this sense, we’re like the directory at the mall. We’re the first stop to take the business owner to places in his or her state, as well as at the national level, for information on laws and regulations.”
Manuel Gallardo, CEO of SocioTechnical Research Applications, a Washington, D.C., firm that sells research and technical assistance to the government, says BusinessLaw.gov has made his job a lot easier. “Before, trying to find the information that’s now available through the Web site meant days and days of going around all over the place,” he recalls. “And I’m in Washington, D.C. I’m in regulation city. I had to go to the public library. I had to ask research librarians for information about the local regulations. I had to track down who in the city or in the state had information about different regulations.”
Now all that information is at his fingertips. Mr. Gallardo recently used BusinessLaw.gov to learn about the latest personnel regulations and tax laws.
BusinessLaw.gov’s local focus sets it apart from most federal government Web sites. “It’s really hard for even SBA lawyers to know which federal, state, and local laws apply to different businesses,” says Patricia Cavanaugh, project manager for BusinessLaw.gov and district counsel for Seattle’s SBA office. “Anybody who wants to find that out faces an ominous task. We’re trying to bring everything together in one location.”
Mr. Van Wert reports that the most common questions involve licenses and permits. “A lot of it is state and local government stuff,” he says. “If you’re a convenience store, for instance, you’re probably tied to a gas station. You probably sell beer and wine. You probably sell lottery tickets. You probably have propane, depending on what state you’re in. You might even sell hamburgers and hot dogs. All of those [activities] require permits.”
Mr. Van Wert also emphasizes that BusinessLaw.gov can’t take the place of legal counsel. In fact, he points out, many users visit the site to look for a qualified lawyer while familiarizing themselves with the issues. “The goal is to allow people to leverage their time,” he says, “so that when they go to their accountant or their tax preparer or their business lawyer, they are already somewhat educated.”
The site allows users to research everything from trademarks to S-corporations, download and print forms, apply for licenses, chat with other entrepreneurs, and e-mail their representatives in Congress. Hispanic entrepreneurs may have an extra incentive to use BusinessLaw.gov, since they are eligible for a number of federal and state programs that are subject to changing regulations. “It is very important for Hispanic small businesses to keep pace with changing technology,” comments Maria Ibañez, vice-president of communication at the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. “Through the Internet, resources such as BusinessLaw.gov offer Hispanic companies the information they need to stay abreast of regulatory changes that can affect business growth and development.”
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