By Cathy McKitrick
Salt Lake Tribune
December 1, 2011
Although politicians share broad consensus about how important small businesses are to the economic recovery, potential congressional spending cuts could impact the agency that helps these businesses take root and expand in Utah and elsewhere.
Last month, 21 business groups approached lawmakers on behalf of the U.S. Small Business Administration, seeking increased funding and restoration of the incentives the agency was able to offer in early 2011, which fueled a brief run of record-level lending.
One small-business advocate — Lloyd Chapman, founder and president of the advocacy group, the American Small Business League — wrote in a recent Huffington Post blog about his concerns that spending cuts tied to Washington’s political gridlock could spell doom for the little guy.
According to U.S. Census data and the SBA’s Office of Advocacy, small businesses create more than 90 percent of net new jobs nationwide, while generating more than half of the country’s gross domestic product and 90 percent of its exports.
However, with the political heft that corporations can wield with lawmakers to protect their interests, Chapman fears that deficit reduction plans coming out of Congress will either reduce the SBA’s budget or eliminate the small agency altogether.
For 2012, the agency is asking for $985 million, less than its budget in the 1980s, Chapman noted.
For his part, Utah GOP congressman Jason Chaffetz said that although he’s heard nothing about eliminating the SBA, he would be open to discussions about reorganization that would eliminate inefficiencies.
"We’re $15 trillion in debt," Chaffetz said, "so there better be some changes."
Established in 1953, the SBA helps small businesses with an array of services, ranging from financing and entrepreneurial training to procurement of government contracts. The agency also represents small-business concerns at the legislative level in an effort to preserve free, competitive enterprise.
For Salt Lake City resident Joni Loyola, her SBA loan meant the difference between stagnation and growth. In late 2010, she contacted John Holt at Salt Lake City’s Celtic Bank, who guided her through the process. Celtic Bank is one of many financial institutions in Utah who handle SBA loans.
Loyola used the financing to purchase space to expand her Sugar House hair salon from 750 square feet to 2,000 square feet and from four stations to eight, also adding a skin-care room.
"I always thought I would rent," Loyola said. "So it was a dream come true when I could buy the building and create my own style."
Those personal touches includes the custom stainless-steel cabinets that grace her new and improved J. Loyola Hair Studio. After operating her own salon for 15 years, Loyola said her business doubled in the past year because of the expansion and upgrades.
Loyola described herself as a "big-time fan" of the SBA and recommends its resources, adding that if it were diminished she "would feel very badly for all the small businesses that wouldn’t have the opportunity I had."
Although the SBA’s future is unpredictable, its leaders prefer to forge ahead.
"We don’t yet know what to anticipate as far as funding," said Region 8 Administrator Dan Hannaher. "Certainly there won’t be a lot of additional dollars flowing to agencies, but most in Congress recognize SBA’s value in strengthening economic development in every state."
Appointed by President Barack Obama, Hannaher has overseen Region 8 — Utah, Colorado, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming — since August 2009. Key pieces of legislation have helped the SBA do its job, Hannaher said, include the stimulus boost from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and the Small Business Jobs Act of 2010, which allowed the waiving of loan fees through the end of that year. Hannaher also pointed to recent legislation that granted tax credits to businesses that hire unemployed military veterans.
Hannaher said he is keeping an eye on pending jobs legislation and also on whether the payroll tax break will be left to expire at the end of this month.
"Unless Congress acts again, every employee in this country will have higher taxes come 2012," Hannaher said, leaving most households with $1,000 to $1,500 less in annual take-home pay.
According to Stan Nakano, district director for Utah’s SBA office, 2011 was a banner year for lending. In 2009, 2,248 loans were approved, totaling $303 million; in 2010 that number fell to 1,678 loans and $279 million. The recent fiscal year ending in September logged fewer loans — 1,561 — but $435 million in total dollars.
"The average loan was larger," Nakano said, attributing that to the $5 million cap allowed under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
Steve Price, deputy director for Utah’s SBA office, has worked with the agency for 26 years, surviving several election cycles and policy changes. Two decades ago, his office employed 30 people, Price said, noting that staffing has shrunk to 11. Nationwide the agency employs fewer than 3,000 people and makes up a tenth of one percent of the federal budget, Price added.
"With new procedures and automation, we can accomplish more with less," Price said. "Obviously things change, and any changes in funding affects our delivery. The biggest fear is the unknown."
In Chaffetz’s way of thinking, every agency should be scrutinized. "Everyone claims they’re too small to make a difference, but if you can’t watch your pennies, its hard to make a difference in dollars."
How soon such decisions may come remains an unsettling question in itself.
Marty Carpenter, communications director for the Salt Lake Chamber, touted Utah’s better-than-average rate of job creation but lamented the congressional supercommittee’s recent failure to address deficit and debt issues as a "missed opportunity."
"When our national leaders fail to address our economic issues," Carpenter said, "it hurts right where it counts — in confidence."
Howard Headlee, president of the Utah Bankers Association, voiced support for SBA programs as "critical to the economic recovery," while echoing Carpenter’s frustration.
"I think everyone is concerned about what exactly Congress might do or might not do next," Headlee said. "Their lack of ability to work together hurts the economy."