The trillion dollar federal spending bill that passed this weekend is being hailed as a hopeful sign of political compromise between long-embittered Republican and Democratic rivals, but for small-business owners, it's something of a mixed bag.
No one is complaining that the parties reached a compromise and passed a bill. After all, another government shutdown would be among the worst holiday gifts to get. Yet various aspects of the appropriations bill--including major concessions to big banks and a weakening of the Environmental Protection Agency--are causes of concern for some.
"We are pleased that congress got the bill passed, but it's a pretty sad testament on what's become standard in Washington, that they could pass the bill without a government shutdown," says John Arensmeyer, founder and chief executive of the Small Business Majority, a small-business lobbying group. "And a lot of this was at the last minute, so it is not helpful to small businesses who want to plan ahead."
Here's a quick look at some of the key provisions:
- The Small Business Administration had asked for $710 million for fiscal year 2015, about $100 million less than 2014. The latest budget agreement provides for $888 million, including funding for technology upgrades to the SBA's loan granting process, money for the promotion of state and export trade, microloans, and expanded disaster-lending support.
- The bill prevents the federal government from awarding contracts to companies that haven't paid federal taxes. That could also apply to the growing number of companies that have changed country domicile, through a process known as inversion, which frees them from their federal tax obligation.
- The budget establishes a national network of advanced manufacturing hubs, as well as allotting nearly three quarters of a billion dollars to promote innovation and technological advances to foster global competitiveness.
- The bill weakens the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010, originally intended to rein in the worst abuses of the banking industry, which led to the Great Recession. The budget provision allows the largest banks to make risky derivative bets at the tax-payers' expense. While that may seem like a distant concern to most people and small-business owners, the threat to long-term financial stability can't be underestimated. "It is an indication of things to come," says Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a policy think tank in Washington, D.C. He added that the next congress, which will be led by Republicans, will likely do even more to undercut the financial reforms enacted since the latest recession.
- Weakening the Environmental Protection Agency has been a long-term goal of Republicans, particularly Sam Graves (R., Mo.), who is the outgoing chair of the House Small Business Committee. The spending bill shaves $60 million from the EPA, and frees farmers and other land owners from Clean Water Act regulations aimed at preventing the pollution of small streams, ponds, and other waterways on their land. "Our members understand the need for environmental stewardship, but they also see the need for pragmatism, and some EPA regulations go too far," says Molly Brogan Day, a spokeswoman for the National Small Business Association, a small business advocacy group.
- Most small businesses don't provide pensions to their workers, but some, particularly in trucking, construction, and electrical contracting, participate in multi-employer pension plans, which essentially pool contributions from many companies together to provide for pension benefits. In an effort to shore up the solvency of those plans for future workers, the spending bill allows such plans to make deep cuts to the pensions of existing benefit recipients.
Regardless of the vicissitudes of the spending bill, few small-business owners are crying foul over the budget. Business owners like Larry Miller, chief executive and owner of BNL, and a disabled veteran, say the spending bill is a sign of incremental progress. BNL, an Inc. 5000 company, provides IT services and investigative analysis to the federal government, but it lost $4 million in government contracts and trimmed 15 employees as a result of the 2013 shutdown.
"I'm a happy camper today," Miller says. "It won't be 'yahoo!' times for us, but it will offer us a little bit of growth and some stability."