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How to Keep the Lights of Business On and Save the Tax Base

A short-term federal forgivable-loan program for property owners whose tenants can't pay their rent during the pandemic would protect badly needed state and local revenues.

Diablo Doughnuts on S. Light Street in Federal Hill is boarded up. The message on the plywood reads: \"Be Open Soon\" and \"Stay Home + Safe Baltimore.\" Some businesses closed due to the coronavirus restrictions are now boarded up. March 31, 2020
The $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act put a finger in the dike, to help families put food on the table and small businesses keep the lights on. But to avoid a complete meltdown of the U.S. economy in coming months — and the devastation that will cause to state and local tax revenues for years to come — all levels of government need to work immediately to keep the gears of our economy working.

Some states have enacted laws to halt foreclosures and evictions for homeowners and tenants who can’t make their mortgage or rent payments. That is a start, but it fails to address the underlying problem, which is that there is somebody on the other end of that unpaid bill who depends on the revenue to keep a business going.

The federal aid package’s $349 billion Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), administered by banks and the Small Business Administration, is a brilliant design: Offer bank loans that are forgiven (and reimbursed by Uncle Sam) if the participating business keeps workers on the payroll. The loan forgiveness includes the owners’ fixed costs, such as rent, insurance and utilities, giving them a chance to make it to the other side of the economic crisis and not close their doors forever.

PPP offers a template that needs to be broadened massively to other sectors of the economy. It could go a long way toward avoiding a catastrophic plunge in state and local tax revenues at a time when the programs they fund will be needed more than ever.

Until Americans are able to return to work enough to allow most businesses to reopen, the economy will suffer a chain reaction of payment defaults that lead to even more payment defaults, along with business bankruptcies like we’ve never seen before. A survey late last week suggests that half of small businesses hadn't paid their full April rent. When tenants fail to pay their rent, the landlords can’t just reach into a magic cookie jar to pay their mortgage and property taxes. Every dollar that is not spent will also not be spent somewhere else in the economy. It’s the famous Keynesian macro-economic “income multiplier” in reverse. Some will default on their fixed costs, some will eventually go out of business, and property values will plunge.

The same applies especially to retail businesses, which furloughed nearly a million workers just last week. If federal, state and local governments fail to act, this country will never be the same. The online retailers will own the consumer sector, with malls and Main Streets becoming ghost towns. Those properties will plunge in value, and their tax assessments will follow suit. Yet hardly anyone seems to be talking about what that will do to property and sales tax revenues, the lifeblood of local governments.

Some governments, those that planned ahead, will fall back on their rainy-day funds, but that will cover their ongoing expenditures for a few months at most. Others are struggling already. Budget cuts will be coming very soon, as states and localities are required to run balanced budgets. In the next round of federal aid, the House undoubtedly will take the lead with a bill to help states and municipalities, and that will start a log-rolling campaign to pass another COVID-19 relief act. However, we are already seeing partisan swiping at states and localities for how they have funded their operations, as if they were the source of this problem, and the Senate will be a tall mountain for state and local advocates to surmount.

So here’s a strategy that will appeal to the business and investment community as well as to the public-sector leaders who are trying to shortstop the damage that raw capitalism will otherwise wreak on state and local revenues for years to come: We need a national moratorium on rents, mortgages, health insurance premiums and utility bills for any person or business unable to make those payments as a result of COVID-19 stay-home and business-closure orders.

But that is just the first step. The second is to provide federal reimbursement through a short-term forgivable-loan program similar in design to the PPP. If a tenant fails to pay rent and documents the hardship, the landlord gets aid in the form of a loan that can be fully or partially forgiven as long as the tenant isn’t evicted. If a store keeps its employees on the payroll, even without customers in the door, the store’s owner is eligible for a forgivable loan to cover its fixed costs. If a store can’t pay its rent, the building’s owner gets reimbursement for its fixed costs when the property is put back in use. And owners of mortgage securities can be reimbursed for the defaults they suffer through no fault of their own, which in itself can help America avoid yet another financial crisis similar to the Great Recession.

Congress could also help these businesses with a federal income-tax loss “carry-back” that allows a credit on taxes previously paid, provided that the store or its landlord stays in business. There is no point in subsidizing a business that declares bankruptcy, but for those that keep the doors open and support workers, some tax breaks make sense.

I have not put a price tag on this concept, because it requires more refinement than this short overview can possibly provide. If the bill becomes a “Christmas tree,” I won’t be surprised if it pencils out to a trillion dollars. That is not my intent: Something closer in scope to the $349 billion PPP is far more defensible and warranted; otherwise it would crowd out direct aid to the states.

There also are eligibility-policy issues far over my head. But I don’t think we need to keep over-leveraged independent oil producers and cruise ship operators alive by subsidizing their debt, so the scope needs to be narrow enough to sustain our nation’s primary state and local tax bases without becoming a giveaway to Wall Street and political insiders. But directionally, it is where we as a nation need to go, and it’s the only way to stabilize property and sales tax revenues beyond 2020.

The state and local government lobby will get a lot more support in the GOP-controlled Senate if this moratorium and “lights on” reimbursement program covers the backs of Main Street investors. And don’t forget that President Trump and his strategic adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner are real-estate operators with hundreds of friends in that industry. They will make sure that their camp’s senators see the light for an omnibus bill that benefits states and localities in more ways than one.

Girard Miller is the finance columnist for Governing. He can be reached at
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