The Coming Fight Over Sales Tax For Online Retailers
from the congressional-battle dept
For years, we’ve written about the back and forth in various attempts by states to force Amazon to collect sales tax for purchases in states where it doesn’t have a presence (or, well, claims it doesn’t have a presence). Existing law says that states have no right to force out of state businesses to collect sales tax for transactions in states in which they have no presence. This rule came out of questions concerning the requirements on catalog retailers, but easily carried over to online retailers. For years, two main groups have been very upset about these rules: brick-and-mortar retailers and state governments. The brick and mortar retailers, of course, don’t like having to compete with retailers who don’t have to charge sales tax, since it puts them at a disadvantage. State governments hate it, of course, because they want more tax revenue anywhere they can find it (even if it harms their constituents).
Of course, there are some good reasons for not forcing out-of-state retailers to collect sales tax in states where they have no presence. There’s the general question of the taxing authority of a state to reach cross borders to get a sales tax, for example. Related to this is the massive complication in collecting such a tax. There are so many different local tax rules, requiring any single entity to understand them all seems like a complete compliance nightmare. Separately, there’s a question of the purpose behind such a tax. Generally speaking, a sales tax is supposed to cover the public infrastructure that a retailer uses — e.g., the streets and clean downtown area that make it easy for customers to come to the store. But with the internet, the retailers aren’t really getting the benefit of all of that, so why should they be taxed for it? You can argue that they still get some of the benefits in the roads/infrastructure used to deliver the goods, but that seems like a much more limited benefit. Finally, there’s a more recent argument: we want to encourage growth in the internet sector, because it creates wonderful efficiencies and positive externalities that we should encourage. The brick-and-mortar folks really hate that one.
Anyway, for years there have been a series of fights and attempts to “deal” with this — mostly pushed by the brick and mortar guys. Amazon seems resolved to accept having to collect sales tax, but has pushed for rules to simplify such taxes across borders to avoid the compliance nightmare. Unfortunately, it looks like the brick-and-mortar guys may be getting their wish with a new bill that will make it easier for states to force out-of-state retailers to pay up… and without many of the safeguards or requirements for simplified/standardized rules across states. While Amazon has suggested it might be okay with this, it could be a massive pain for any smaller retailer. In an age of micro-retailers — think the musician selling products off his or her own website — having to comply with every states’ tax laws is going to be huge pain.
Thankfully, it appears there’s at least some opposition to this. Senators Ron Wyden and Kelly Ayotte are trying to pre-empt the legislative effort, by getting a resolution through that would say that the Senate won’t pass “burdensome or unfair” taxes on internet retailers. The resolution points out that such out-of-state tax requirements could become a massive burden on smaller players, and given today’s unemployment situation, it seems like the wrong time to put in place such taxes:
Whereas any Federal legislation that would upset the free and fair Internet marketplace and allow State governments to impose new, onerous and burdensome sales tax-collecting schemes on out-of-State, Internet-enabled small businesses would adversely impact hundreds of thousands of jobs, reduce consumer choice, and impede the growth and development of interstate commerce; and
Whereas at a time when national unemployment numbers are high and businesses across the country are struggling to keep their doors open, the Federal Government should promote pro-growth and pro-business policies instead of enacting legislation that extracts additional taxes from our Nation?s Internet-enabled businesses
For a while now, it’s seemed like such taxes were going to be unavoidable, even as they could end up creating significant problems for small businesses and individuals who sell items directly. Hopefully this small bit of opposition helps those on the other side think twice about the unintended consequences of a massive new tax regime for small businesses online.