Karen Kerrigan

It turns out small business is big business. According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, there are 30.2 million small businesses in the country, employing nearly half of the entire workforce. Karen Kerrigan, founder and CEO of the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Council in Washington, D.C., is there to advocate for the interests of this giant group of little guys.

Kerrigan founded the lobbying organization 25 years ago, and today it is one of the more prominent voices for the interests of small business owners. She spends her days talking to lawmakers, making appearances on media outlets, meeting with small business owners from around the country, writing press releases, and generally trying to advance a pro-business legislative agenda.

Occasionally she also visits local chambers of commerce, and that is what she will do on Thursday, June 13, when she visits the Princeton Mercer Regional Chamber of Commerce for the Independent Business Summit at the College of New Jersey from 8 to 10:45 a.m.

Kerrigan will speak about the current state of entrepreneurship. Chris Kuenne of Rosemark Capital will also be there to discuss the book he co-wrote: “Built for Growth: How Builder Personality Shapes Your Business, Your Team, and Your Ability to Win.” Tickets are $45, $35 for members. For more information, visit www.princetonmercerchamber.org.

Kerrigan is currently working on several major legislative issues affecting small businesses. Some of them have support from both Democrats and Republicans despite an extremely partisan atmosphere.

“On the healthcare front, we are working to push through a bill that would extend the moratorium on the health insurance tax,” she said. The tax on insurance plans was included in the Affordable Care Act of 2010 but its implementation has been delayed.

Kerrigan is also in favor of an updated trade agreement with Mexico. “There are a lot of really good provisions for small businesses that would incentivize and lower barriers of trade between Canada and Mexico,” she said. “When most small businesses begin to trade in the global marketplace, they start either on the northern or southern border.”

On some issues, Kerrigan joins with businesses of all sizes in opposition to certain actions taken by the Trump administration, which has been levying tariffs, taking the view that trade wars are generally bad for business. She says tariffs against Mexico would especially impact agriculture, building and construction, importers, and retailers.

The Jobs Act 3.0 is another pro-small-business bill that enjoys broad bipartisan support. The law, sponsored by Democrat Maxine Waters of California, would remove some restrictions on crowdfunding. The law has passed the House of Representatives three times but has gotten hung up in the senate.

Kerrigan, again joining with the broader business community, has been advocating for immigration reform and describes herself as pro-immigration. Small businesses, she says, want more foreign workers available for hard-to-fill job openings.

With unemployment below 4 percent, workers are able to command higher wages, and this is a problem for small business. “It’s very competitive competing against mid- or larger-type businesses because they have the resources to pay more and give better benefits,” she says. “We want to essentially allow small businesses access to a larger pool of workers.”

On other issues, Kerrigan opposes the Democrats, particularly the left-leaning progressive wing of the party. Several Democratic presidential candidates, most prominently Bernie Sanders, support providing healthcare to all citizens by replacing private health insurance with a single-payer, Medicare for All system.

While such a system would relieve businesses of the burden of providing health insurance, it would impose tax increases on individuals and businesses to pay for it. “In order to pay for it, you would have pretty vast tax increases for individuals and businesses and huge payroll taxes that would hurt workers,” she says. “The proposals we’ve heard are pretty expensive from a tax perspective.” Proponents argue that the tax increases would still be cheaper than the premiums that individuals and businesses currently pay.

“We don’t think big government is the answer, particularly given the cost of it and what it would mean for entrepreneurship,” Kerrigan says.

Her proposals on the healthcare front involve less radical reform still intended to make healthcare more affordable. She is pushing legislation to allow small businesses to form associations to buy health insurance together. In this way, they would be able to drive harder bargains when negotiating with health insurance providers.

Normally Kerrigan’s group is on the same side of most issues as big and medium-sized businesses. But association health plans are one area where the interests of small business go against those of corporate giants. Another is tax-advantaged health savings accounts, which Kerrigan supports despite opposition from health insurers.

She also favors deregulating the electricity market, a measure that is opposed by big utilities. “We’re always on the side of disruption and innovation, and big players who have been in the market for a long time don’t necessarily like that,” she says.

Kerrigan is even sure to mention small businesses when discussing her early background. She was born on Long Island and grew up in upstate New York, where her parents worked for the state government. “It was great growing up in a small town with a lot of small businesses,” she says.

After graduating from the State University of New York College at Cortland, Kerrigan spent 10 years working for nonprofits. Her experience raising funds served her well when she decided to go into policy advocacy in the 1990s. She founded the Entrepreneurship Council in 1994 and used her skills to grow the membership and donor base.

Since then she has worked through periods of intense partisanship, and times when lawmakers were more amenable to compromise. She acknowledges that the current divided government is dysfunctional. But like an experienced farmer reading the weather, she sees a break in the storm ahead. “Whenever it’s very partisan, you tend to have breaks where you have these moments of bipartisanship. You’re able to create momentum and use that to get things done. I think we’re entering a three to four month period of that,” she says. “We’re going to see some productivity.”

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