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Small Business Commission holds listening session in Guntersville

Monday, the Alabama Small Business Commission held the first of four listening sessions with small business owners across the state ahead of the 2020 legislative session.

Lieutenant Governor Will Ainsworth (R) said that the public meetings and the surveys that participants fill out helps the Commission know what the concerns of the small business owners are concerned with so that the Commission can recommend legislation to the legislature to address those issues.

There has been a lot of efforts by the state to lure large business to the state; but most job growth comes from small business growth and expansion Ainsworth said.

The State Director of the National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB) Rosemary Elebash said that the Alabama Small Business Commission was created by the legislature during the Great Recession when more small businesses were closing than opening.

The NFIB is the nation’s leading small-business association.

“It is the duty of the commission to formulate policies encouraging innovation of small business in the state to discuss issues critical to the economic growth of small independent businesses and their interests,” Elebash said. 99.4 percent of all businesses in Alabama are small businesses and over half of the jobs in Alabama are with small businesses. The largest sector in Alabama are agriculture and forestry followed by construction.

Elebash said that five members of the commission have rolled off when their terms expired and Ainsworth has appointed new members. State Representative Joe Lovvorn (R-Auburn) is one of the new members, The members are diverse and include members from all of the business sectors in the state.

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Elebash said that the Commission has printed decals honoring the veterans who own businesses. The decals recognize the 25,000 veteran owned businesses in the state.

“We passed legislation that if you deliver less than $10,000 in sales to a municipality you do not have to get a delivery vehicle license in that municipality,” Elebash said. “One municipality in the Birmingham area decided that every business delivery vehicle must have a license.” The commission helped pass legislation that stated that there was just one license per business, not per vehicle. One North Alabama town decided that every business vehicle that drove through their town, whether they delivered anything there or not, had to have a business delivery license. We passed legislation to stop that.

Elebash said that the Commission lobbied the Public Service Commission so that small businesses who pay their bill on time and operate for a period of time can get their security deposits on their utility bills back and not at the close of the business. Alabama Power Company will now do a free inspection of a building for energy efficiency before a small business opens.

Elebash said that the Commission promotes Small Business Saturday. This was the tenth year to have done it. Across nation $19.6 billion was spent in small businesses this year on Small Business Saturday.

The Commission also helped create Atlas Alabama, a website for small business owners. There they can get statistics and information useful to small business owners.

“Alabama has worked hard to create a business friendly climate that encourages the creation of new businesses and an opportunity for existing business to expand,” Elebash said. “Working together business owners and community and government leaders will continue to serve and support small businesses across the state.”

One of the businessmen in attendance said that the apprenticeship program would work better if the state had a longer summer vacation break. By the time you get a high school student trained and up to speed they are going back to school.

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Ainsworth said that the workforce development commission will look at that issue.

Ainsworth said that workforce development is the largest crisis we have in our state and that state leaders are looking at Pre-K and are looking at apprenticeships. The state has hired two consulting companies that are working on a master plan for K-12 and a master plan for apprenticeships.

“The best country on that (apprenticeships) is Germany,” Ainsworth said.

“You can’t have an apprenticeship of any value with that short of a summer,” the business owner said.

Ainsworth said that a few years ago, nobody thought of Alabama when you thought about Pre-K now through the efforts of Jenna Ross and the Department of Early Childhood Education we are recognized as having the best Pre-K program in the country. “We want to do the same thing for apprenticeship as we did with pre-K.”

Elebash said that the unemployment trust fund in Alabama is funded only through employer contributions. As unemployment has dropped the Commission has successfully pushed through reforms that decreased the amount of time a person can draw unemployment from 20 weeks to 14 weeks. Last week the trust fund had $723 million. Once the trust fund reaches $800 million, likely after April 21, that will trigger a reduction in the rate that employers contribute to the unemployment trust fund.

“You as businessowners will save $45 million from this change,” Elebash explained.

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Elebash said that the booming economy has meant that more people are joining the workforce.

“We are getting people who have not been working,” Elebash explained. Training them in those soft skills, showing up for work on time, not being on their cell phones during work, not leaving before their shift ends, looking at customers when they speak to them, etc. has fallen on business owners.

Many of the business owners agreed that developing those soft skills has been a problem.

One business owner said that as the economy has improved there are fewer people applying that come from households where no one is working. This has made it harder to find people who will qualify for existing job training programs. Most applicants now are either already working or come from a household where somebody is working.

“They almost have to be homeless or making minimum wage to qualify for these training programs,” the business owner complained.

State Senator Garlan Gudger (R-Cullman) said that Stonebridge Wedding Chapel in Cullman fought the lodging tax that was being charged on them on the chairs they set up, the tables they rented, venue rental etc. They challenged the Alabama Revenue Department and won; but the Revenue Department appealed the ruling and the chapel won again. “We codified that lodging tax is lodging tax” and does not apply to renting wedding venues, tables, chairs, plates, etc.

Elebash says that fighting state agencies is difficult because they have attorneys on staff while you have to pay hourly fees.

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One business owner said that the state needs to incentivize recycling for businesses so that material that could be recycled is rather than going to a landfill.

Elebash said that this is an ADEM question we have to refer.

One business owner wanted the schools to teach soft skills to the work force.

Elebash said that the community colleges have started a pilot program teaching graduates to look a customer in the eye, to clock in and clock out and be on time.

State Senator Clay Scofield (R-Guntersville) said that this is the read to work program.

“They need it expand it and get it in to the high school level,” one business owner said.

“Alabama made products should get preferred vender status,” from state government one businesswoman state. Alabama state bid law has a preferred vender status in the law for products made in Alabama, but that is often ignored by state agencies.

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Her business makes American flags; but she recently lost the bid to provide the state of Alabama flags to a company that makes their flags in China.

“Alabama made should be number one, American flags should be number two, and foreign made should be a last resort when there is more than a five percent difference in price,” the textile plant owner said.

One business personal complained about the personal business property tax that is charged. They have to pay 16 to 17 counties and everyone of them calculates it differently.

“This has been a bur under my saddle for years,” Elebash said. She favors its elimination but since it all goes to the education trust fund (ETF) it would have to be made up by something. Elebash said that it should at least follow the federal depreciation schedule.

Brandon Moseley is a former reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter.

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