A federal judge has finally issued a permanent injunction on Colorado’s 2010 online sales tax reporting requirements law, which called for all online retailers to report purchases made by Colorado residents to the state’s Department of Revenue. A temporary injunction against the law was issued last year just before the reporting requirements would have gone into effect.
In his ruling, Judge Robert E. Blackburn looks at the precedent set by the 1992 Supreme Court case Quill v. North Dakota, which mandated that out-of-state retailers did not have to collect sales tax even as it recommended that Congress address the issue—which, of course, it has yet to do.
Quill puts states like Colorado in a difficult position. The state cannot require out-of-state retailers, retailers with no physical presence in the state, to collect and remit sales tax on sales those retailers make to residents of Colorado. Residents who make purchases from those retailers are obligated to pay use tax on those purchases, but enforcing the use tax is significantly more difficult than enforcing the sales tax. Seeking to enhance enforcement of the use tax on those who make purchases from out-of-state retailers, a state understandably looks to the out-of-state retailers for key information that can enhance enforcement. However, if the state has a mandatory sales tax system, as does Colorado, enforcing a reporting requirement on out-of-state retailers will, by definition, discriminate against the out-of-state retailers by imposing unique burdens on those retailers. Such a system imposes a differential burden on out-of-state retailers because the different burden is imposed precisely because the retailer is an out-of-state retailer entitled to the protection of Quill. Quill creates the in-state versus out-of-state distinction, and the dormant Commerce Clause prohibits differential treatment based on that distinction. Only a change in the law by the Supreme Court or action by Congress can change this situation. Quill, 504 U.S. at 318 (“Congress is now free to decide whether, when, and to what extent the States may burden interstate mail-order concerns with a duty to collect use taxes.”) (emphasis ours)
It’s worth repeating: “Only a change in the law by the Supreme Court or action by Congress can change this situation.”
Our readers may be surprised, given our support of states’ efforts for online sales tax collection in general, that we agree with Judge Blackburn—on his overall ruling, the fact that Quill makes the current situation difficult for states, and his assertion that only federal action, not state, can remedy the situation.
State after state has tried to increase the collection of sales tax on online purchases, but only a federal law, like the Marketplace Fairness Act, can overcome the limits set by Quill—or, more precisely, can exercise the interstate commerce authority reserved for Congress via the (dormant) Commerce Clause.
One other interesting point: Colorado doesn’t include a line on its income tax return form for reporting and remitting sales tax on online purchases. The reason given? That “the amount of tax collected did not justify the printing expense.” We have to think that, while that may have been true in 1974, it wouldn’t be true anymore, and it does seem like a reasonable measure to impose until Congress acts on online sales tax collection.
But the inclusion of this fact in the ruling leads us to another question. The ruling says that “there are at least three reasonable nondiscriminatory alternatives” to reporting requirements that could also increase the collection of sales tax on online purchases: the line on income tax returns, increased auditing of businesses, and consumer education and notification programs aimed at increasing compliance.
What about the other states that have already implemented these, that include the line on income tax returns, have increased business audits, and created consumer education programs—and still have not seen satisfactory compliance with its sales tax laws? Would these states be permitted to implement reporting requirements?
Other ideas in the ruling make us think not, but better legal minds than ours may be tempted to try. We still oppose reporting requirements, primarily because they are an invasion of consumer privacy, but we wouldn’t be surprised if another state, fed up with lack of action by Congress, decides to try this approach.
The best course of action, as we have been arguing for a long time, is for Congress to pass federal legislation allowing states to require online retailers to collect sales tax, for many good reasons.