In the first Presidential debate, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney spent a lot of time arguing about which of them would do more to help small business. (The phrase “small business” was repeated 26 times in the debate.) And as the economy still holds center stage in the campaign, the theme of what each will do for America’s almost 28 million small businesses will no doubt be revisited in Tuesday’s second debate.
Despite the seemingly unanimous opinion that Romney won the last debate, the candidates’ definitions of small business, small-business concerns, and how their respective tax plans would affect small business created as much as debate as their performances.
Obama’s plan would allow the Bush-era tax cuts for families earning more than $250,000 to expire at the end of the year. Romney argued that would punish successful small-business owners, the majority of whom record their business income as personal income and pay taxes accordingly. Obama noted that only 3% of small businesses earn more than $250,000 annually, and therefore 97% of small businesses would remain untouched by any tax hike. Romney responded that that 3% — close to 1 million businesses — were job creators and that Obama’s plan would kill jobs just when the country needed them most.
Of course, the correlation between higher taxes and job creation is an old argument between the parties, with the Republican position succinctly stated by Jack Kemp in 1993: Raising taxes on the wealthy will cause them to “shift their money out of productive investments that create jobs into tax shelters which have little or no economic benefit for the nation.”
Conversely, a September report from the (putatively) nonpartisan Congressional Research Service suggests that reductions in the top tax rates “have had little association with saving, investment, and productivity growth.” What those reductions do, the report concludes, is increase “concentration of income at the top of the income distribution.”
This assertion, too, has been a matter for debate.
But what are those small-business owners, so central to the last debate, waiting to hear from the candidates in the next one?
Taxes, surprisingly, seem not to be among their top three worries. According to a new survey of its membership released by the 350,000-member National Federation of Independent Business, which describes itself as nonpartisan but has been associated with Republican positions and states on its website that it “will still fight to repeal” the Affordable Care Act, the top three concerns of small business owners are, in order, the cost of health insurance, uncertainty over economic conditions, and the cost of energy.
According to Jean Card, NFIB vice president of media and communications, the cost of health care hits small business owners hard because they’re “buying as individuals,” and their concern over those costs has only increased since the passage of the ACA.
Uncertainty over economic conditions, Card says, makes it difficult, if not impossible, to plan for growth. “If you’re going to have higher expenses” in the future, she says, “you’re not going to expand.” Of course, that uncertainty extends to future tax rates.
The cost of energy, says Card, “is critical to the bottom line. You have to run your trucks, heat your store, run your machines.”
Card would like both candidates to talk to small-business owners in tomorrow’s debate in a way that illustrates that they “understand cash flow and the bottom line and the ability to hire.
“If a candidate shows that [he’s] given that some thought about the day-to-day” challenges of running a small business, that would “comfort a business owner.”
What small-business owners are looking for from the candidates, says Card, summing up, is “empathy.”
What the Small Business Majority, an advocacy and research group that supported the ACA, says small business will be looking for tomorrow differs from the NFIB’s list. According to a poll of 470 small-business owners conducted last August by the SBM, their three primary concerns were a lack of consumer demand, followed by higher material and supply costs, and taxes.
“Both candidates want to say they’re the candidate of small business,” says Rhett Buttle, the SBM’s national outreach and government-affairs director, “but small-business owners want to hear what they’re going to do to get people into their stores.
“The discussion about taxes,” he says, boils down to “how to grow the middle class, because if you’re not selling products, if people don’t have money to buy, what’s the point?”
The tax question, says Buttle, is less about rates and more about simplification. “The small-business owner is his own chief marketing officer, his own chief operating officer. Anything that takes away time from that — like taxes — is concerning. What small-business owners would like to hear from the candidates is their plan for tax simplification,” he says.
As for health care, Buttle argues that the ACA’s exchanges will allow small businesses to combine their purchasing power to gain economies of scale and ultimately bring down their costs.
Both Buttle and Card agree that uncertainty as to the direction of the economy, access to capital, and tax rates are unnerving to small-business owners, and both agree that the candidates need to supply more specifics this time than they did last.
“Some deductions are important to small-business owners,” says Buttle. “Which ones is Romney proposing to cut?”
“Having Congress kick the can down the road every year by extending tax rates just exacerbates uncertainty,” Card says.
Perhaps Tuesday’s debate will begin to alleviate some of it.