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Another year of uncertainty lies ahead

In 2013, small-business owners will contend with many of the same questions that made it a challenge to run their companies over the preceding 12 months.

In 2013, small-business owners will contend with many of the same questions that made it a challenge to run their companies over the preceding 12 months.

It's unlikely that negotiations in Congress will resolve all disagreements over tax and budget issues that affect small businesses. And there are still many questions about the implications of the new health-care law.

That points to continued caution - and perhaps slow hiring.

"Uncertainty is the bane of every small business," said Scott Shane, a professor of entrepreneurship at Case Western Reserve University's Weatherhead School of Management. "Their only rational response is to pull in their horns and slow down."

Following are some of those outstanding issues: 

Taxes. A deal averting a tumble over the fiscal cliff "almost surely won't be comprehensive enough that we won't be revisiting it next year," said Todd McCracken, president of the National Small Business Association.

Many small-business owners are worried about their personal tax rates. Sole proprietors, partners, and owners of what are called "S" corporations report income from their businesses on their individual 1040 returns. Their companies are in effect taxed at personal rates, which can be higher than corporate rates.

What's known as the Section 179 deduction, which applies to equipment purchases, will shrink to $25,000 next year from $125,000 in 2012. Congress can increase the deduction at any time, even after 2013 has begun. But for the time being, business owners can't count on a big break.

"It's a huge change for companies planning on making investments," McCracken said.

Health care. Under the new law, companies with 50 or more employees will be required to provide affordable health insurance for their employees starting Jan. 1, 2014. During 2013, federal and state health-insurance exchanges will be set up, and owners will be able to see how much it will cost them to buy insurance.

As the year begins, however, many small-business owners don't know whether their states will be creating exchanges or whether they'll have to go into the national system - and they don't know what that will mean for their costs.

Lending. Depressed lending levels may be with us through and well beyond 2013, said James Schrager, a professor of entrepreneurship at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

Home-equity loans, a traditional source of money for people starting or expanding businesses, remain difficult to get, a legacy of the mortgage market's 2008 collapse.

Small Business Majority CEO John Arensmeyer is hopeful that a bill introduced in Congress this year to allow credit unions to make more loans to small businesses will get more traction when the new Congress convenes. That bill would more than double, to 27.5 percent, the amount of total assets credit unions can use to lend to small businesses. But he's also not expecting major changes in lending next year.

"Sadly," Arensmeyer said, "I don't think we're going to increase our access to capital overnight."