The grocery store

Years ago, a small family-owned grocery store at the north end of Taos was known for having the best meat in town.  The meat was always laid out on fresh butcher paper in immaculately clean glass-fronted display cases.   It was never pre-wrapped.  You got to select exactly the piece you wanted, wrapped freshly for you by an employee, usually a member of the family.  I bought most of my meat there, confident that it was clean and unspoiled.

One of the owners told me about new government regulations requiring expensive refrigeration equipment they couldn’t afford.  The equipment was intended to keep meat safe, but this store took good care of its meat without the extra equipment or the regulations.  He asked, was this a move by the big supermarket chains to drive small family stores like theirs out of business?

I didn’t think so.  I reasoned that the chains wouldn’t mind, and might even welcome, a uniform set of rules.  The rules would provide guidance to store managers, give them a standard, and probably also give direction to the equipment manufacturers.  The chains probably didn’t even consider competition from small operations like his.  And so, with complicity from government, big store chains made it harder for the little guy to stay in business.  They didn’t do it on purpose, but that’s what happened.

That grocery store closed years ago and probably not just because of regulations.  I tell the story now because it was an early lesson in the conflict between small family businesses and big corporations.

Throughout the just-finished legislative session we heard from “pro-business” interest groups, and I found myself wondering what it means to be pro-business.

Pro which business?

Small businesses consume the services of big businesses, just like the rest of us.  They pay utility bills, they buy insurance, they buy equipment.   And they are captive taxpayers.

I am “pro” small business, rather than pro-business in general, partly because I celebrate the sense of independence and community responsibility that is built into the character of so many small business owners, and partly because I see small businesses getting squeezed by both the economic and the regulatory environments.  They are at a disadvantage compared to corporations’ deep pockets, management efficiencies and marketing power. And they are at the mercy of rules and laws made not with the intention of harming them but without understanding of what “small” means.

This applies in the workers’ compensation system, which I know well.  An assumption of that system, built into the law, taken for granted and barely noticed, is that the employer understands the rules and knows what to do when a workers’ compensation situation is triggered.  After talking to small business owners for almost two decades, I can tell you that most of them don’t.

It also applies in other areas of employment law. Various state and federal programs to encourage business to hire, with tax incentives and so on, have so much paperwork attached that small business owners can’t afford to take advantage of them, as business-owning friends have told me.  The first time I heard of such a tax credit,  the only business in town to benefit from it was the local McDonalds.

As we watch the final signings and vetoes from the 2013 legislative session, New Mexico has, as usual, been under pressure from national corporate interests and made some progress in becoming more attractive to them, from film credits to the single sales factor.  But how have we supported those New Mexico-based that have been serving us, and employing us, for generations?  I’m asking:  reader, if you are a small business owner, or if you talk to friends who are small business owners, I’d like to know what has this year’s legislative session has done for you.

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