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Business Journals: Will 2022 bring another round of small-business relief funding? Congress is working on a deal

Small businesses struggling in the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic may get another round of relief — but not as much as they hoped for.

Rep. Dean Phillips, R-Minn, who has pushed for additional grant funding for the Restaurant Relief Fund and for the gyms, hotels and live events industries, said he remained optimistic about Congress passing a new, targeted relief package for those industries. While some industries got specialized grant programs, he said the industries he is seeking grant funding for did not — and often suffered the greatest during the Covid-19 pandemic and are suffering under the Omicron variant now.

“I hear every day from small-business owners that are desperate,” Phillips said in an interview with The Business Journals. “The need is real. The obligation is equally real. And while there is a lot of money in various states, I don’t have the confidence that businesses would be treated in a fair and equitable manner around the country.”

While he said the need is probably around $100 billion or so, these industries will likely see far less in any final legislation. A recent Washington Post article identified ongoing negotiations in the Senate pegged to a $68 billion figure for a relief package.  Phillips, who said he was deeply engaged in the negotiations, said there is no set number, and that it could change during the negotiations, although it's likely to be less.

“It's more likely that it would be a little bit less than that than more,” Phillips said of the $68 billion figure. That amount would be substantially less than what industry lobbyists and members of Congress had sought. The Restaurant Revitalization Fund alone saw eligible applicants request more than $72 billion in funds — far more than the $28.6 billion Congress approved for the program.

Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Illinois, had proposed $30 billion for the fitness industry. The hotel industry is also lobbying for a dedicated grant program, as well, pushing Congress to pass $20 billion in grants for its hardest-hit hotels.

The live events industry has also sought its own grant program, stressing that while venues and theater operators got the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program, that largely did not apply to the small businesses that put on the trade shows, consumer shows and corporate events that are the bread and butter of many conference centers and hotels across the country. But the push for more money for grant programs comes as Congress suffers from what one lobbyist described as “Covid relief fatigue.”

One source with knowledge of the ongoing negotiations said the lower bound for a stimulus package was currently around $40 billion while the upper bound was around $60 billion, but talks were ongoing. Those talks have been occurring at some level now for months. In September, Phillips secured a promise from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., for a vote on a targeted small business stimulus passage. 

Several sources said at that time that a package would be finalized after Congress finished its work on the Build Back Better package of legislation, although those ongoing negotiations have stalled out after Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., said he would not vote for it, essentially cutting its chances in an equally divided Senate.

“It's not a surprise that this is taking longer than it should. The Senate has become a bottleneck for a lot,” Phillips said. “The speaker has agreed to my demand that we put a package on the floor when it comes to the House. But we do need the Senate to come to a compromise.”

Phillips stressed he expects the Senate to reach some compromise on a small business stimulus and that it could be included in a continuing resolution to fund the government for the rest of the year. The current continuing resolution expires in February.

“I think it’s incumbent on us in Congress that the federal government should not pick winners and losers and — sadly — we have done so, and we have a chance to rectify it."

But Congress has continued to face pressure to pass a targeted small business stimulus package both from industry and from within. A group of more than 60 lawmakers from both parties called on Congressional leaders to quickly pass such legislation, in a Dec. 20, 2021, letter.

That letter came after the The Community Gyms Coalition and the Global Health & Fitness Association wrote its own letter to congressional leadership urging Congress to pass a direct-aid program for gyms and fitness facilities “before the end of the year.” It has since followed up with a new letter it sent to President Biden on Jan. 6, 2022, to "request your support for direct, targeted aid."

"We are aware that congressional leaders are quickly drafting legislation to provide targeted aid to industries heavily impacted by Covid, including gyms," the groups said in the letter. "We commend their efforts and urge you to support direct, targeted aid for distressed gyms and fitness facilities."

Meanwhile, the Small Business Administration's popular grant and loan programs for small businesses — such as the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program — essentially closed their doors to new applications at the end of 2021, leaving small-business owners with fewer options than ever for Covid-19 relief.

Will 2022 bring another round of small-business relief funding? Congress is working on a deal
January 7, 2022 – The Business Journals
By Andy Medici