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Small Businesses Already Slipping Off The 'cliff'

JOYCE M. ROSENBERG

NEW YORK (AP) â¿¿ More than 1,000 miles from Washington, D.C., Marie DeNicola's small business is already experiencing the consequences of lawmakers' inability to compromise on the budget.

If Democrats and Republicans don't come to a consensus soon, a combination of billions of dollars in tax increases and budget cuts will go into effect Jan. 1. This "fiscal cliff," as it is commonly being called, is already hurting DeNicola's company Mainstream Boutique, a Minneapolis-based chain of 23 franchise stores that sell women's clothes. DeNicola recently got a painful e-mail from a prospective franchisee who said that she changed her mind about opening a store because of uncertainty about the economic and political climate.

"It was like a punch in the stomach," says DeNicola, who also operates one of the stores. "It's a little scary â¿¿ because of the unknown, small businesses aren't waiting until January or February to see what happens. People are reacting now."

Going over the cliff could have a range of negative ramifications. If people have to pay higher taxes, they will likely spend less. Businesses will hold off on hiring or making investments that could help them expand. Federal budget cuts will put billions in government contracts in jeopardy. Economists and lawmakers warn that without an agreement, the U.S. could slip back into a recession. And they say that small businesses have the most to lose.

Like her potential franchisee, DeNicola is also holding off on big moves because of the cliff.

"We're waiting to see what happens before we decide on hiring. I can't continue to invest in the business until I know what's going to happen," she says.

One of the biggest concerns for small merchants is the pending expiration of the 2 percentage point cut in payroll taxes that gave consumers more money to spend in 2010 and 2011. If the tax cut isn't extended, the government stands to get $95 billion â¿¿ money that consumers won't be spending at Mainstream Boutique and other small businesses. Long-term jobless benefits will also expire, giving people who have been out of work for a long time $26 billion less to spend.

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