DALLAS - Taking a cue from singer Paul Simon, small business owners from Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and New Mexico gathered in Dallas on April 25 to come up with 50 ways to improve their business environments.

And only a few - so far - involve banks.

The Dallas gathering was the 61st of some 65 state and regional meetings sponsored by the White House Conference on Small Business. Already, delegates from the Southeast have met in Atlanta, and the regional tour continues in Chicago, Denver, New York, and San Francisco through May 12.

Before the show reaches Washington for a national conference June 11, delegates from each region will meet to reduce the 300 suggestions coming from the regional meetings down to 50. They will be put into a report and presented to Congress and the President.

"Ultimately, our goal is to sift through these suggestions and identify some good ideas that we can act on quickly," said Dorothy Robyn, special assistant to President Clinton on economic policy.

If the Dallas meeting is any guide, taxes and regulations are the most pressing issues facing these entrepreneurs. These two issues accounted for 50% of the approved recommendations. Among the most popular were proposals to restore the home-office deduction, repeal federal estate taxes, and fully deduct health care costs.

"The delegates in Dallas wanted to send a very clear message," said Jim Weidman, an attendee representing the National Federation of Independent Business. "Instead of saying 'cut estate taxes,' they said 'eliminate them.' "

Taxes may have caught the most flak, but banks were also in the firing line. Skepticism about banks and their willingness to extend credit to small companies, particularly those owned by women and minorities, was evident in the statements of conference organizers.

Mark Schultz, executive director of the White House Conference, said consolidation in the banking industry is seen as cutting into the availability of small business credit.

"The whole phenomenon of regional banks and the gradual elimination of community banks is compounding problems for small businesses," he said. "It has inhibited some small business people from even approaching their bank about a loan."

That regional banks are actively marketing loans to the small business market is only slowly getting across in the community. Mr. Schultz pointed out that demands on the time of these entrepreneurs make them hard to reach.

Though Mr. Schultz said capital formation is still the No. 1 issue among small companies, only one such proposal received enough votes to be in the top 10 coming out of Dallas. That suggestion, with the fourth-largest vote tally, would make it easier for small banks to establish small business investment companies by eliminating minimum capital requirements. The proposers said this would allow small banks to make equity investments in these companies.

But one should not read too much into the survey results, said Mr. Weidman.

Noting the large number of government contractors in attendance, he said, "Some of the recommendations reflect the makeup of the people who attended the conference and are not representative of the small business community at large."

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