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Hiring plans for smaller employers also weakened, falling from 5 percent to 1 percent of employers.

One in 4 employers cited political uncertainty as a key reason why they were not expanding. They listed the top business problems in the way of hiring as taxes (23 percent) and regulations (21 percent). Poor sales came in third at 19 percent.

“December’s reading is certainly not typical during a recovery,” the NFIB said.

Sales showed some improvement but still weren’t a positive for small businesses: 18 percent of owners reported higher sales, compared with 30 percent reporting lower sales. That was a 5-point improvement from the previous month.

The appetite for loans for expansion also has failed to pick up for small businesses.

“Desire for new lines of credit is weak among small business owners,” the NFIB survey said. Fifty-two percent are not looking for loans, and 29 percent said their credit needs had been met.

But some businesses are doing well.

Gnome Games, based in Green Bay, Wis., was inversely affected by the fiscal cliff.

“Personally, I’m very optimistic,” Gnome Games CEO Pat Fuge said. “When people don’t take vacations, they escape with a board game or card game.”

At Kimmie Candy Co., sales have been growing 20 percent each year over the past few years, largely because of exports, which make up about 20 percent of the company’s business.

“People eat candy when they’re happy, and they eat candy when they’re depressed, and they give candy when they’re in love,” said Joseph Dutra, president and CEO of Kimmie Candy, based in Reno, Nev. “It’s an affordable treat that makes people feel good. So we’re kind of in the perfect business.”