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story.lead_photo.caption In this June 21, 2018 file photo, a job applicant looks at job listings for the Riverside Hotel at a job fair hosted by Job News South Florida, in Sunrise, Fla. The Labor Department is expected to issue its new regulations on overtime in 2019, which employees must be given overtime, and which are exempt. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

NEW YORK -- Small-business issues often win bipartisan support on Capitol Hill, but given the divisions in the new Congress, advocates for companies have low expectations.

Even after lawmakers deal with the partial government shutdown, a Democratic House, a Republican Senate and ongoing investigations of President Donald Trump's White House and campaign are expected to be obstacles to much small business-related work getting done.

"I think 2019 is going to be a quiet year with maybe small reforms on tax things, maybe some trade legislation getting through," said Karen Kerrigan, president of the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council.

Company owners may see more movement in their states, said John Arensmeyer, CEO of Small Business Majority, who called governors "more aggressive than anyone" on helping small businesses.

A look at issues that small-business advocates expect to be on government agendas in 2019:

HEALTH CARE

Lawmakers were expected to introduce health care bills even before the federal court ruling last month that the Affordable Care Act is unconstitutional. Since that ruling, which is expected to be appealed and could reach the Supreme Court, House Democrats have said they plan to intervene in the defense of the law.

Democrats expect to introduce bills to limit the use of low-cost short-term health plans that have limited coverage and bolster the Affordable Care Act's coverage of people with pre-existing conditions. Republican opposition to Democratic efforts is likely, although many GOP lawmakers voiced support for pre-existing condition coverage during their election campaigns.

Small-business groups want Congress to pass legislation limiting increases in health care costs -- but they're not optimistic.

"To do that would be controversial," said Todd McCracken, president of the National Small Business Association.

Legislation expanding the availability of association health plans stalled in the 115th Congress, and could be reintroduced. These plans allow individuals like sole proprietors to band together and buy insurance. They're illegal under the Affordable Care Act but the Trump administration last year issued rules making it possible for some owners to join association health plans. However, some states have laws making it difficult or impossible for their residents to join the plans, and more states might enact their own legislation.

Changes in health care law are most likely to come from the states, Arensmeyer said.

TAXES

Legislation to simplify tax code provisions that affect small businesses languished in the last Congress and is expected to be reintroduced. Among other things, the Small Business Owners' Tax Simplification Act would make due dates for estimated tax payments the last date of calendar year quarters. It would also make it easier for owners to deduct their own health care premiums.

"They're common sense reforms that are supported by both sides of the aisle," Kerrigan said.

Some business groups will seek further tax code simplification because of the administrative burden taxes place on owners. But hopes aren't high.

"Any material simplification is probably not going to happen with the divided Congress," said Keith Hall, president of the National Association for the Self-Employed.

TRADE

Congress is expected to consider the U.S. Mexico Canada Agreement early in 2019. The trade deal, intended to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement, is opposed by Democrats who want stronger protections for U.S. workers from low-wage Mexican competition.

Many U.S. small manufacturers export to Mexico and Canada and want the deal ratified.

"It's bad for business, particularly for small businesses, if the agreement just went away," McCracken said.

EMPLOYMENT ISSUES

The Labor Department is expected to issue its new regulations on overtime -- which employees must be given overtime, and which are exempt. The Trump administration is rewriting rules written during President Barack Obama's administration and then blocked by a federal judge; those rules would have doubled the pay threshold at which workers would be exempt from overtime, to $47,476 from $23,660. An estimated 4.2 million people would have been able to begin earning overtime under the rules.

Kerrigan expects the rules to be issued early in the year, and predicted the threshold would be a compromise between the Obama administration version and no increase.

PAID LEAVE

Legislation is expected in more states providing for paid sick leave and family leave for employees. Twelve states and 20 cities and counties have sick leave laws, which allow employees to accrue paid time off for their illnesses or a family member's. Paid family leave, including time off to care for ill relatives, is the law only in California, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island; those states have employee and/or employer-funded insurance pools to partially replace workers' wages.

Democrats in the House may also introduce family-leave legislation, but it likely wouldn't survive the Senate, McCracken said.

SundayMonday Business on 01/06/2019

Print Headline: U.S. agenda light on small-business aid

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