The scene on Main Street America is bleak. In urban and rural area, shuttered storefronts have become an all-too-familiar sight.
Maryland and our Eastern Shore are no exception. From my hometown in Takoma Park to Elkton and from Centreville to Ocean City, many businesses have closed or are hanging on for dear life.
Since the coronavirus pandemic wreaked havoc on our nation, I’ve talked to dozens of business owners in Chestertown, Easton, Cambridge and Salisbury with 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’re employing creative strategies and doing everything they can to keep the lights on.
Curbside pickup is now the norm. Entrepreneurs are finding new ways to pitch products. Restaurants pray for good weather so they can continue to serve outside. It’s still possible to enjoy the Chesapeake Bay’s bounty by picking crabs or enjoying a succulent crab cake. Restaurants are increasing delivery options, complete with to-go cocktails and other alcoholic beverages, often the largest source of profit in a world with razor-thin profit margins.
These hard-working small businesses seldom ask for assistance from government, but now they’re crying out for help. For the sake of our economy and communities, we must respond immediately. In Maryland, we are fortunate to be in a strong fiscal position to offer small businesses — the heart and soul of our state’s economy — a lifeline.
We ended fiscal 2020 with a $586 million fund balance, thanks in part to our federal jobs, as well as the federal stimulus and expanded unemployment programs, which helped stave off economic disaster. We should put this fund balance toward a small-business relief and rescue program immediately.
Simply put, in the absence of state support, more businesses will shut down, taking with them thousands of jobs, direct and indirect economic benefits and community investments.
You might be asking, isn’t this the same Peter Franchot who has pushed to squirrel away as much money as possible to weather future economic uncertainties?
Maryland has $1.2 billion in its Rainy Day Fund, and I’m certainly not advocating we drain that account. It might be needed 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.
The state’s Board of Revenue Estimates, which I chair, recently voted to approve an updated fiscal forecast demonstrating that we are living in unprecedented economic times. Though our latest projections are better than the worst-case scenarios outlined several months ago, significant challenges lie ahead.
Even the country’s best economists cannot predict how the pandemic will affect the labor market and spending patterns. 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.
We don’t know whether a surge of the coronavirus would trigger a second economic shutdown. We don’t know how much longer small businesses can hang on with shrunken profits. We don’t know how political events might unfold and impact the economy for better or worse.
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 fall and winter months.
What I’m not confident about is the ability of Congress to put down the partisan swords and pass a second stimulus package anytime soon. President Trump has done little to show he can broker or is even interested in brokering such an agreement.
As such, states must act on their own.
Leaders in Maryland 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 7 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.
By Peter Franchot
Peter Franchot is the 33rd Comptroller of Maryland.