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Small businesses face tax certainty but political uncertainty

Jeff Schneider recently had his busiest November and December ever, as the tax preparer’s small business clients clamored for information about how the fiscal cliff negotiations could impact their taxes.

“It was unbelievable,” said Schneider, who runs SFS Tax and Accounting in Port St. Lucie, Fla.

The last-minute deal to avert the fiscal cliff left clients at least knowing what their tax bills would look like.

But Schneider said he’s still hearing some gripes amid the continued political bickering over the debt ceiling, spending cuts and other issues. That’s despite the fact that some also are talking about expanding their businesses or opening new locations.

 “When you talk to people they tell you face to face that the economy stinks, but they’re talking more politically than economically,” said Schneider, whose clients include doctors, dentists, a pawn shop and even an oxygen bar.

It’s no secret that Americans are fed up with all the political squabbles over taxes, spending and the federal debt load. For some small-business owners, the frustration is also tinged with fear: They’re worried that Congress’s inability to find common ground will hurt the economic recovery, and cut into their business.

Bill Dunkelberg, chief economist with the National Federation of Independent Businesses, said one in four businesses told the small business trade group in December that it was a bad time to expand because of political uncertainty. That’s despite other signs that the economy is slowly improving in areas like housing and employment.

He said many small businesses also reported that their top problems involved issues like uncertainty about government policy and health care costs.

“The things you think businesses should worry about were way down on the list,” he said. “Government dominates the top part of the list.”

Taxes aren’t the only issue it says has the potential to hurt small businesses. The small business trade group has been a staunch opponent of President Barack Obama’s health care plan, the Affordable Care Act. The group was a lead plaintiff in the Supreme Court lawsuit that sought to halt the plan.

Dunkelberg said it’s too early to say whether concerns about political and government issues will ease in January, now that the fiscal cliff issues are resolved. Congress is still wrangling over other issues, such as the nation’s borrowing limit and possible federal spending cuts. Both could hurt small businesses owners who contract with the government or otherwise rely on government spending.

But some say that for many small business owners they work with, the fiscal cliff negotiations were the major potential distraction because it most directly impacted their taxes.

 “When finally the compromise was struck, I think there was an overall sigh of relief that at least there was something that had happened,” said Kim Loewer, a tax practitioner who runs Loewer and Associates in Weyridge, Vt. “The uncertainty had gone away.”

Now that many of the mom and pop shops he works with know what their tax liabilities are, Loewer said they are able to better plan for things like hiring and expansion.

 In general, Loewer said his clients – who run the gamut from consultants to retailers – are mostly reporting that business is going well.

“I don’t hear as much about where the economy is heading anymore,” he said. “I think that right now, from my clients’ point of view, we have seen an uptick in the economy (and) their businesses are doing better this year.”

Schneider, the tax preparer in Florida, said he is expanding the advertising and social media efforts for his own small accounting and bookkeeping business. That’s on the theory that spending more on marketing will draw in more clients even when the economy isn’t as strong.

He’s even called in his wife, an interior designer, to help fight the effects of the recession and weak economic recovery.

“I made her feng shui my office so I could get rid of the bad vibes,” he said.