Editor's note: This guest column is part of the Idaho Press' "Keep it Local" publication, a special edition about local businesses which publishes Sunday, March 28.
What will Idaho’s Main Streets look like once the pandemic is contained and people feel comfortable enough to return to their everyday rhythms so disruptively interrupted by COVID-19?
All of us know a small business that, try as it might to stay afloat by grabbing the lifelines throw at it by federal Paycheck Protection Program loans and state grants, couldn’t quite hold on. Not so detectable are those we can’t see still open for business but just barely and daily pondering whether it’s worth it.
The answer to our question, what will our Main Streets look like in the near future, is another question: Tell me what state and federal policies will be in place once the pandemic has passed that will either welcome or prohibit new small-business openings, small-business reopenings, and small-business continuations for those that weathered the storm?
Small business is at the center of every economy in the world. The U.S. Small Business Administration counts 169,151 small businesses in Idaho, which made up 99% of all businesses. These mom-and-pop firms employed 325,294 Idahoans. These numbers, according to the SBA, “capture the early stages of the pandemic.”
There is the old bit about having people ask you what the key to comedy is and when he or she begins to repeat the question, you shout “Timing!” before they can end. Not as amusing but no less true would be to have them ask what is at the heart of all business decisions so you could blurt out "Costs!” before they finished the question.
As of the writing of this editorial, if it hasn’t done so already, Congress is looking to increase the federal minimum wage rate to $15 and hour, which would more than double the cost of labor on all small-business owners because Idaho’s rate is tied to the federal government’s, both of which are $7.25 an hour.
The minimum-wage rate has always been — and will always be — an entry-level or low-skilled wage rate earned mostly by teens and young adults. It’s been made a political issue by some politicians and cause groups as a way to seem to be doing something, standing for something that can fuel their self-regard. Research shows it most definitely is not a road out of poverty.
Back home, Idaho has done some things to help reduce the cost of opening, reopening, or continuing to operate a small business. Gov. Brad Little’s decision to use some CARES Act money to rescue the flagging finances of the state’s Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund, rather than stick small businesses with higher UI taxes, was a huge help to small-business solvency.
During last year’s special session of the Legislature, Idaho wisely passed a law holding small businesses at arm’s length from potentially crippling COVID-19 lawsuits thrown at them for being the source of someone contracting the disease which could have been contracted anywhere. The bill lawmakers passed, however, expires July 1 and will need to be extended.
The space limitations of this article prohibit a journey into the many regulatory burdens that drive up the costs of running an enterprise, suffice to say that when the federal government lifted many of them, and states such as ours began streamlining theirs, the nation registered one of it best-performing economies ever.
Once the whirlwind of a new presidential administration and its promises subside, once the current session of the Idaho Legislature ends, all that remains will be the costs produced — or reduced — by it all. Tell me what they’ll be, and I’ll tell you what Idaho’s Main Streets will look like.