WASHINGTON — One thing is certain: If you bring together 1,800 small business owners from every corner of America, ask them what's bothering them and what to do about it, there will be no lack of response.
Be ready for lots of opinions and answers on such problems as the high cost of insurance and uncertainty over taxes.
"It's going to be a good, grassroots, what-business-is-all-about session," said Terry Hill, spokesman for the National Federation of Independent Business, of the White House Conference on Small Business Aug. 17-21 in Washington.
It will be an opportunity to send some strong messages about the virtues, problems and needs of small business, a time to set small business' legislative and political agenda until the end of the decade, said John Motley, NFIB legislative director.
'Cult of Entrepreneurs'
The executive director of the conference, Ralph Stanley, displays a bubbly enthusiasm: "I think it's going to be an exciting gathering. This cult of entrepreneurs, they've become our heroes," Stanley said. "(They are) the people responsible for America's economic growth."
As Stanley suggests, the conference will be a time for singing the praises of free enterprise.
But many of the delegates -- the owners of gas stations, beauty shops, grocery stores, high-tech firms, small manufacturers, bars, insurance and real estate agencies, to name a few -- would prefer to focus on problems.
If the small businessman has a message for the federal government, it's: "Get out of my way. Let me run my business. I can make a profit, I can give people jobs, I can contribute to the overall economy if you just get the hell out of my way," Hill said.
There is anger over such issues as soaring insurance costs; uncertainty over tax policy; federal deficit spending that drains capital; government-imposed paper work; unfair competition from such tax-exempt entities as university book stores and church day-care centers; and the uncertain future of the Small Business Administration.
In a series of state and regional conference meetings, liability insurance rates emerged as the most emotional and "clearly the dominant issue," Stanley said. For a variety of reasons, such as huge jury awards in civil cases, insurance companies this year have boosted liability rates.
"I've never had a claim. My rates went up 60 percent this year," said Bob Boyd, a music store owner in Little Rock, Ark. Other business owners talk of liability rate increases of 500 percent to 1,000 percent.
Concern Over Taxes
Some merchants say they will be forced out of business unless Congress passes a uniform product liability standard and legislates reform of tort law in the civil justice system.
Uncertainty over taxes is another issue high on the agenda. All businesses and individuals are waiting for the outcome of tax reform on Capitol Hill. But changes in tax codes have bedeviled small businessmen for years. "We just can't make any plans. The big thing is to see where we'll be next year, so we can see what we can afford," said Homer Vinson, owner of a Red Bay, Ala., grocery store.
Because many business owners feel problems originate at the federal level, and because President Reagan has moved toward a shutdown of the SBA, there is an undercurrent of resentment toward the administration. John Satajaj of the Small Business Legislative Council characterizes the government attitude toward small business as "benign neglect."
To offset that perception, Stanley said, top-ranking administration officials will address the conference delegates as they meet and draw up recommendations. They include White House Chief of Staff Donald Regan, Cabinet secretaries William Brock of Labor, John Bennett of Education and Elizabeth Dole of Transportation.