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Amber Peebles' company, Athena Construction Group, gets 85 percent of its revenue from the government.
BY JOYCE M. ROSENBERG
AP Business Writer
NEW YORK--Laura Schoppe's small business gets about half of its revenue from contracts with the federal government. It's at risk of losing a chunk of that money when 2013 arrives.
Schoppe and thousands of other small companies with federal contracts are watching to see if Congress will stop a mandatory $109 billion in federal budget cuts scheduled to take effect Jan. 2 in what's being called sequestration. The cuts were triggered by the failure of Washington lawmakers to strike a budget deal that would begin chipping away at the U.S. deficit.
Unless Congress acts to stop the sequester, it's estimated that 9.4 percent of nonessential defense spending and 8.2 percent in nonessential spending in other parts of the federal budget will be reduced. No one knows yet where exactly the cuts might be made, but many expect they would have a devastating effect on small companies and slow an already lumbering economy.
Schoppe's company, Fuentek, helps federal laboratories license their technology innovations so they can be sold to companies for use in their own research and development. Most of the Raleigh, N.C., company's government contracts are with NASA and the Pentagon.
Schoppe says she believes Congress will find a way to avoid the cuts. But she's taking no chances and is looking for other business that will make her company less dependent on the government. One snag is that U.S. universities also face the possibility of big cuts in the money they get from the government. That could make them less able to develop and sell their own technologies. In the coming years, Schoppe's revenue could drop more. So she's soliciting business from overseas schools.
The risk to small businesses and the economy could be severe. Small businesses would have to eliminate more than 956,000 jobs if all the cuts were implemented, according to researchers at George Mason University and the economic forecasting firm Chmura Economics and Analytics.
Their findings are based on what they believed would be the most vulnerable agencies. But it goes beyond the job losses likely to be suffered by companies with government contracts. It also includes businesses that benefit indirectly. For example, a company that provides cleaning or catering services to a government contractor might be one of the casualties when a contractor has to cut costs. Or a retailer that depends on a contractor's staffers for its business may have to lay off workers when sales fall.
"A lot of these companies don't know they're dependent on federal contracts," says Stephen Fuller, a professor of public policy at George Mason.
Fuller says small businesses would account for nearly 52 percent of the job losses expected from companies. The study forecasts that more than 157,000 jobs at federal contractors would be lost. Nearly 800,000 would be lost at subcontractors, suppliers and the retailers, wholesalers and service providers who sell to contractors or their employees. The exact number of small business federal contractors in the country isn't known, but the Small Business Administration roughly estimates the number at more than 130,000.
Amber Peebles' company, Athena Construction Group, has been a contractor and subcontractor on federal construction projects since 2009. She gets 85 percent of her revenue from the government doing everything from carpentry work to helping build hospitals for the Veterans Administration. She and her co-owner, Melissa Schneider, founded the Dumfries-based company nine years ago. The former Marine was wounded during Operation Desert Storm in 1991, giving her company a special status that gives it preference in winning government contracts. It's also reducing her anxiety over sequestration. Even if Peebles loses some contracts, she expects that competitive advantage to position her company to win others.
"I could go crazy trying to second-guess and prepare for what we don't know," Peebles says.