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Governor Huntsman: State must be economic first responder, bridge gap to federal funds

By Jon Huntsman
Published by the Deseret News

March 29, 2020

The negative effects of shutting down much of our economy to fight COVID-19 are beginning to hit Utah families. People are losing their jobs, businesses struggle to remain viable and families grow anxious about paying their bills. Federal stimulus money is on the way, but Utah cannot afford to wait. The state must step up and play the role of economic first responder.

Businesses need capital to survive. Steps taken to slow the spread of COVID-19 have temporarily interrupted the usual relationship between customers and businesses. Small businesses are not able to cease operations and still make payroll so they either layoff employees or find a stopgap measure. Our ability to efficiently connect businesses to capital during the quarantine will directly impact the total number of people who lose their jobs and the rate at which our economy recovers once life gets back to normal. 

As governor, I would take three specific and immediate steps to connect life-saving capital to small businesses while limits remain on their ability to operate as intended: 

Step 1: Fresh Capital
By empowering local banks already operating throughout communities across the state, we can most efficiently get money directly to the entrepreneurs and small business owners who are the first to be impacted by the quarantine. With recent cuts in the prime lending interest rate by the Federal Reserve Bank, local bankers now borrow money at zero interest. That same offer should be extended to small businesses desperate for a lifeline. These loans should include flexible repayment terms to match individual business models as revenue projections become clearer post-pandemic. 

The rainy day Utah has been saving for is here. It would be unconscionable for the state to hold $932 million of taxpayer money in reserve while the economy gasps for air. In addition to working with banks to get capital into the hands of businesses that desperately need it, the state should designate $300 million of the Rainy Day Fund to begin offering interest-free loans that can be repaid as economic recovery benchmarks are met. By offering simple, straight-forward, business-friendly terms, the state can eliminate the backlog businesses face in trying to get a loan from the federal Small Business Administration, infuse capital to businesses that need it and, ultimately, get this money back to the Rainy Day Fund as loans are repaid.

Step 2: Federal Support
Nothing about the federal government is nimble and we must be prepared to move alone. Federal money sent to the state does businesses no good until it actually gets into the hands of our entrepreneurs and private sector leaders. Even as Congress passes a massive stimulus package, there will inevitably be a lag getting the money to businesses that need it. That’s time we don’t have to waste. State leaders should prepare now to ensure the money goes where it is needed most in the shortest amount of time possible. 

Small business owners are not experts in navigating the federal bureaucracy. Training and increasing the number of state employees who can walk businesses through each step of the process of accessing funds likely to be block-granted to the state, while also proactively reaching out to small businesses to help them understand the criteria for receiving those monies, is essential.  

Step 3: State Resources
While small businesses look for places to tighten their belts, it is in the collective interest to incentivize them to continue paying employees rather than cutting payroll to make tax payments, especially as the government is looking for efficient ways to get money to businesses. Delaying the remittance of sales taxes in targeted industries will help businesses to avoid layoffs. Likewise, the state should identify areas where it can provide relief to local governments. The state should immediately suspend its share of the transient room tax to allow counties to aid businesses in hospitality industries. 

Every day of delay means more job losses and more difficulty reviving our economy. Utah’s economic resilience has been demonstrated before. No state is better positioned to face this challenge and I’m confident Utah will rise to the occasion.