Small businesses look to Congress for action, may be waiting

Markets Associated Press

With Congress back at work, small business owners are hoping issues they care about like tax reform or health care will get some attention. They may be left waiting a while.

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Most of the focus this fall will likely be on the presidential race and other elections. Both houses of Congress are in session during September, then leave for campaigning. They have four scheduled weeks of work starting Nov. 14 in what's known as a lame duck session, but how much lawmakers accomplish then may depend on the results of the presidential voting and which party controls the House and Senate.

"There will be a lot of things that will be kicked down the road, and that just continues to cause more uncertainty and unpredictability for small businesses," says Karen Kerrigan, president of the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council.

Meanwhile, small business groups want to see how much attention their wish list gets from the presidential campaigns of Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump.

THE CONGRESSIONAL AGENDA

Kerrigan is optimistic about some bills that have support from both parties, including legislation that would let small businesses offer employees Health Reimbursement Arrangements, or company-funded savings accounts that staffers can use to pay medical bills. HRAs became illegal under the health care overhaul. The bill has passed the House.

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Another measure with bipartisan support that Kerrigan says has a chance of passing would modify online crowdfunding investment that became legal in May. The bill, which has been approved by the House, would raise the total that a company can raise from individual investors to $5 million from $1 million. It also would allow a fund known as a special-purpose vehicle or single-purpose vehicle to buy shares on behalf of a group of individual investors. That would make crowdfunding more attractive to venture capital or private equity funds that invest on behalf of others.

Some legislation could pass by being attached to appropriations bills that will be the priority during the lame duck session, says Todd McCracken, CEO of the National Small Business Association.

The NSBA is hoping Congress reauthorizes the Small Business Innovation Research program, under which companies can participate in projects to develop technology products for the government. The program must be authorized by 2017 to continue funding projects, but advocacy groups want Congress to act this year so it doesn't fall through the cracks during what's expected to be a busy legislative session next year.

The group also wants Congress to approve President Barack Obama's nominee to the board of directors of the Export-Import Bank, an agency that makes and guarantees loans so U.S. companies can export their goods. Three of the five board seats are vacant, and without a quorum, the bank cannot make loans over $10 million. Obama nominated Mark McWatters, who has held a variety of federal and Texas state government positions, to fill the seat, but the nomination has stalled in the Senate Banking Committee.

The National Federation of Independent Business wants lawmakers to amend federal regulations including rules taking effect Dec. 1 that require an estimated 4.2 million workers to be given overtime pay, spokesman Jack Mozloom says.

In an NSBA survey of business owners released Wednesday about the issues they want Congress and the president to address first, just over a fifth mentioned reducing the national deficit, and 19 percent said they should end partisan gridlock and work together. Fourteen percent mentioned simplifying the tax system, and 11 percent want health care costs addressed. The survey questioned more than 1,000 owners, including members and non-members of NSBA, from July 22 to Aug. 3.

WHAT THE CANDIDATES SAY

Although much of the focus of the presidential campaign has been on the candidates' personalities, they have made spoken about some issues that affect small business.

Clinton has released proposals including:

— A standard deduction for expenses similar to the ones available to individual taxpayers. She also wants to increase the equipment and property tax deduction known as the Section 179 deduction to $1 million from the current $500,000.

— An expansion of the small business tax credit under the health overhaul to include employers with up to 50 employees, up from the current 25.

— Reducing regulations that limit small business lending by community banks and credit unions.

Trump's proposals include:

— A 15 percent maximum tax on business income.

— A review of all regulations on businesses with an eye to eliminating the least critical to health and safety, and regulations including Environmental Protection Agency rules covering streams on private land.

— Renegotiating the 22-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement and withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which is awaiting approval from Congress.

Small business advocates say they'd like to see more details from both candidates. The National Federation of Independent Business wants to know whether business owners whose companies don't pay corporate taxes — partnerships and sole proprietors — might also see their rates fall, Mozloom says.

WHAT TO DO IN THE MEANTIME?

Surveys this spring showed small business owners were scaling back expansion and hiring plans, in part because of uncertainty about the election. But there won't be a new Congress and administration until January, meaning owners could be in limbo.

"They're in a holding pattern, waiting to see what's going to happen," Mozloom says.

Depending on the election results, slow progress on small business issues could last into in 2017. Owners might want to consider just moving ahead, says John Arensmeyer, CEO of the Small Business Majority.

"I don't think they should be waiting around to make business decision based on who's going to get elected," he says.

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Follow Joyce Rosenberg at www.twitter.com/JoyceMRosenberg . Her work can be found here: http://bigstory.ap.org/content/joyce-m-rosenberg