Wyoming small business owners have found themselves at a loss during the pandemic, with little choice but to shed workers, close their doors and wait for the better times.
Many of the local companies and nonprofit organizations driving Wyoming’s economy have fallen into uncertainty during the downturn. Entrepreneurs and business leaders shared their worst fear with Wyoming lawmakers during a committee meeting Thursday: They may not survive if the state doesn’t act soon.
Though funding from the federal coronavirus relief bills has flowed to several struggling firms throughout the Equality State, some business owners have found themselves ineligible for government aid and feel left behind.
Minerals, Business and Economic Development committee members convened online to workshop a bill that would provide significant grants and loans to small businesses still hurting from the economic damage caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The committee members reviewed the entire bill and will vote on the revised version Monday. In the meantime, the Legislative Service Office will incorporate any amendments approved Thursday.
“The concept of this bill is quick grants to small businesses that are falling between the cracks,” said Chairman Mike Greear, R-Worland. “...This is our first attempt to get relief out to our small businesses.”
The $50 million in funding for the programs will come from the $1.25 billion in coronavirus relief federal funding provided to Wyoming. Many of the small business relief programs in the bill were initially drafted to target companies that had not qualified for the federal the Paycheck Protection Program. But lawmakers ultimately amended the bill to ensure more businesses would be eligible.
Three relief programs, one bill
The first program proposed would provide a stipend of $15,000 to small businesses adversely interrupted by the pandemic and with less than 50 employees in Wyoming. An additional $2,000 would also be provided to the employer for every full-time worker it has. Another $1,000 per part-time employee would also be provided.
The second program would extend non-recourse loans of up to $300,000 to businesses in Wyoming with less than 100 employees. The loans would have a zero percent interest rate and 10-year term, with options for loan forgiveness. Loan providers would be paid 1 percent for distributing the funding.
The final program would reimburse eligible businesses in Wyoming for expenses incurred to protect the health of employees. That could include cleaning products, hand sanitizer, personal protection equipment, as well as the costs of training workers on safety protocols or implementing public health guidelines. Companies could receive a stipend up to $500,000.
Certain details in the bill still need to be ironed out. The Wyoming Business Council would administer the programs and draft rules, if the bill is ultimately approved.
“The Business Council is a little bit concerned about the resources required to make this happen,” said Josh Dorrell, CEO of the Wyoming’s Business Council. “...But we’re also sensitive to the fact that the pain that we feel as an organization pales in comparison to what the businesses are feeling out there today.”
Impassioned public input
But the bill, as written, will still not reach all Wyoming businesses, even some that appear to need the emergency funding the most.
For 55 years, the National Outdoor Leadership School has been a magnet for recreation and outdoor enthusiasts worldwide for exploration and experimental learning opportunities. The hub has also been a key economic driver for Lander, collecting $40 million in revenue and contributing $5 million into the local economy. But Terri Watson, president of the nonprofit organization, said this financial engine supporting the state’s tourism economy is “in grave danger.” Revenue had dried up since the pandemic swept through Fremont County with force — 750 programs cancelled, 85 percent of employees laid off and students’ tuition refunded.
“We’re in dire financial straits,” Watson said to lawmakers Thursday. “NOLS needs to be included in this program. NOLS has fallen through the cracks of the hastily written CARES Act.”
Due to its unique size and organizational structure, the organization had not been able to access federal aid. As the state’s proposed relief programs were written, it appeared the school would also not be eligible for state aid either.For Watson, and many Wyomingites testifying, the future looked bleak.
Several public officials and residents advocated for lawmakers to consider explicitly including Wyoming nonprofit organizations as eligible businesses for loans in the bill’s language. But an amendment that would have named nonprofit organizations as eligible businesses failed to pass.
The Business Council could potentially still consider nonprofits businesses for the aid, according to Legislative Service Office staff attorney Brian Fuller.
During the testimony, Wyoming residents and public officials emphasized the need to provide expedited aid to small businesses with few strings attached.
“We need (a bill that’s) simple,” State Auditor Kristi Racines said. “We need to get the money out the door to businesses that need it.”
In addition to advocating for the inclusion of nonprofits in the bill, she cautioned lawmakers not to restrict the funding only to businesses that have not received federal relief. Completely restricting businesses that have already accepted coronavirus federal aid from the new state loans and grants would be detrimental to businesses who still need additional help, she explained. That’s because federal aid for small business has primarily focused on employee support. The committee lawmakers amended the bill and eliminated such a requirement, though preference will be given to businesses that have not received any aid yet.
Travis Deti, executive director of the Wyoming Mining Association, said the amount of stipends provided to employers for investment in coronavirus-related safety equipment needed to increase. “I would encourage the committee to consider bumping those amounts, in some cases significantly,” he said. Lawmakers increased the funding available for supply reimbursement from $200,000 to $500,000.
Lawmakers will reconvene at 9 a.m. Monday to review and vote on the revised bill.
Follow the latest on Wyoming’s energy industry at @camillereports
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