The scene on Main Street America is bleak. In urban and rural areas, shuttered storefronts have become an all-too-familiar sight. Maryland is no exception. From my hometown in suburban Takoma Park to the charming small communities in Southern Maryland, many businesses have closed or are hanging on for dear life.
Last month, Governor Hogan announced that he will use $150 million from the Rainy Day Fund to help Maryland businesses, with another $100 million reserved for emergency funding. That’s a nice start, but it is not nearly enough. This small amount of funding will be gone before most businesses – particularly the smaller ones most in need of assistance — figure out how to complete the complex applications and submit them to the alphabet soup of agencies. On top of that, the governor’s aid package does nothing for sole proprietors.
These small businesses that represent the beating heart of our state’s economy and the character of their communities seldom ask for assistance from government, but now they’re crying out for help. We must respond immediately with even more funding and make the process quick and easy.
Simply put, in the absence of significantly more state support that what Governor Hogan has offered, more businesses will shut down and take with them thousands of jobs, direct and indirect economic benefits and community investments. I know because I have spoken with owners of restaurants, retail shops, manufacturing plants and arts and cultural centers. They’ve pivoted their business models and adapted to ever-changing rules to ensure customer safety. They are creatively doing everything they can to keep the lights on.
White Rabbit Books and Gifts, a specialty children’s bookstore, continues to introduce young minds to adventure and possibility. Their online presence supplements scaled back in-store activities with new pickup and delivery options.
Annmarie Sculpture Garden in Solomons has instituted a “pay-what-you-can” admission practice, in addition to implementing strict CDC protocols that limits access to facilities and encourages self-guided garden tours.
The Charles, a farm-to-table favorite in La Plata, reopened after a two-month closure with increased outdoor seating as well as takeout and delivery options. Disposable single-use menus, stringent sanitization procedures, touchless doors and contactless payments keep diners and staff safe. For Thanksgiving, The Charles is offering fully prepared to-go holiday meals for those who want to skip the trouble of preparing a family feast.
These are just a few examples of the extra lengths businesses are taking to stay afloat.
The State of Maryland ended Fiscal Year 2020 with a $586 million fund balance, thanks in part to our federal jobs, as well as the federal stimulus and expanded unemployment programs. We should immediately put these unassigned dollars toward a small business relief and rescue program. We don’t even need to touch our Rainy Day Fund, which may be needed later to fund our most critical needs, to protect our most vulnerable citizens and to stabilize our economy.
The fact is, we’re still facing significant revenue shortfalls over the next several years, so we must brace for the likelihood that the worst may be yet to come. But if we don’t help our businesses now, we might wake up on the other side of this pandemic with Main Street as a ghost town.
Even the country’s best economists cannot predict how the ongoing pandemic will affect the labor market and spending patterns as the months drag on. The uncertainty of what lies ahead, when flu season collides with the coronavirus, leaves us staring into a potential economic abyss.
There is a lot we don’t know, which is what makes revenue forecasting such a difficult endeavor.
What we do know, and what the numbers show, is the influx of federal aid in the form of loans to businesses, stimulus payments to citizens and enhanced unemployment for those out of work have helped prevent — at least for the time being — an economic catastrophe.
Without that direct and rapid injection of funds to consumers and small businesses, we’d be in far worse shape. I’m confident that another much-needed stimulus will work as we head into the unpredictable winter months.
What I’m less confident about is the ability of our leaders in Washington to put down the partisan swords and pass a second stimulus package anytime soon.
Which brings us back to Maryland. Elected leaders here should not hesitate to take the $586 million fund balance and invest it in the small businesses that fuel our tax base, employ our neighbors and support our communities.
If Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and the General Assembly could approve $8.5 billion in taxpayer incentives to lure Amazon’s second headquarters to our state — an ultimately unsuccessful endeavor that I supported — we can certainly spend about seven percent of that to save thousands of Maryland’s small businesses.
We have the means to take action. We must not let this opportunity pass. We need to help our beloved local businesses now.
Peter Franchot is the 33rd Comptroller of Maryland.