comscore Editorial: Small businesses should be priority in Hawaii’s economic recovery | Honolulu Star-Advertiser
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Editorial: Small businesses should be priority in Hawaii’s economic recovery

On Wednesday, shortly after the U.S. Senate approved adding $320 billion to the Payroll Protection Program (PPP) — and the U.S. House was poised to follow suit — Hawaii U.S. Rep. Ed Case said that the aid is critical for the islands, where “small business is king.”

The federal Small Business Administration (SBA) affirms this view. According to the SBA’s 2019 Hawaii profile, upwards of 132,600 small businesses (500 employees or fewer) represented 99.3% of all businesses, employing slightly more than half of Hawaii’s workforce.

Helping mom-and-pop businesses make financial ends meet should rate as a priority in Hawaii — the largest portion of our small-business sector is made up of operations with fewer than 100 employees, including many in which the employer’s first language is not English.

The House approved a $484 billion coronavirus relief package on Thursday that aims to replenish the already depleted PPP funds as well as provide cash for hospitals and coronavirus testing. The first round of PPP funding, secured last month, netted more than $2 billion in loans for some 11,500 Hawaii businesses.

With the state’s overall economic health resting in large part on whether small business thrives or withers, this second round of PPP forgivable federal loans is expected to reach local employers not a moment too soon.

The first tranche of PPP funds marked progress in helping businesses tread water amid shelter-in-place orders. However, the Hawaii Bankers Association has reported that roughly 11,000 businesses had applications pending when the money ran out last week.

While here and elsewhere there were snags in the PPP launch effort, there’s reason to expect a smoother follow-up. In the wake of the first funding round, critics complained that it appeared that big banks had given preference to larger, established customers. Operations without such a relationship ended up at the back of the line.

In a sensible response, the latest relief measure, which President Donald Trump has supported, reserves $60 billion in PPP loans for smaller, family- owned businesses and nonprofits not served by a large national bank. Nationwide, PPP funding has so far produced nearly 1.7 million loans, through which a business can borrow up to 2.5 times its average monthly payroll expenses to cover eight weeks, keeping employees on the payroll. The loans are forgivable if businesses use at least 75% of the funds to pay their workers.

Already, projections show that a replenished program will run dry of funds within days, which is not surprising with 22 million people filing for unemployment in the past month. Local businesses should make sure their applications are complete, error-free and ready to file, so they can move quickly.

Moving forward, Congress is expected to consider yet another round of COVID-19 relief. While more PPP funds and allocations for other wish list items, such as infrastructure and tax initiatives, are possibilities, much-needed funding for state and local governments grappling with the economic standstill is likely to dominate political wrangling.

The National Governors Association has called for a half-trillion dollars to help counter state budgetary shortfalls. On this score, Hawaii is deserving of a larger-than-average slice of relief funding. The coronavirus outbreak is leaving us with one of the nation’s highest levels of unemployment. And our post-pandemic economic recovery will take longer than most states due to dependence on tourism, which likely will be limited until a COVID-19 vaccine or other treatments prove effective.

In coming weeks, as Congress weighs whether to continue its coronavirus-related spending spree, county and state government must continue to size up belt-tightening options. As our economy preps to slowly reopen, it should start with a focus on jump-starting the small business sector.

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