We were fascinated by a new Reuters article that focuses on states’ loss of revenue due to uncollected online sales tax.
Among the facts that caught our eye was this tidbit:
On the state level . . . financial pressures seem to have erased partisan division on the issue. Texas’ majority Republican legislature passed its legislation, and California’s measure had support from both parties.
Hoping to bring that cooperation and a sense of urgency on the issue to Washington, local businesspeople, mayors and other officials from states have been lobbying on Capitol Hill. (emphasis added)
We’ve always believed that online sales tax collection is a bipartisan issue—it’s not about creating a new tax or raising taxes; it’s simply about closing a loophole that’s draining states’ abilities to fund critical local services. We’re glad to see that state politicians are willing to forget about partisanship in order to serve the greater good, and we think that even on the federal level, there’s more agreement than not on the issue. Over time, we believe that more and more political leaders on both sides of the aisle will speak out for the Main Street Fairness Act—particularly since the article quotes a spokesman for the Alliance for Main Street Fairness as saying that “between 150 and 200 members of Congress come from states which have recently taken action and would see hometown support for a federal solution.”
The article also includes a quote from Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett, who’s “lobbied extensively for federal action” (and who is, we note, a Republican), that offers some specific figures on what the lost sales tax revenue would have paid for:
Cornett says the $10 to $15 million a year his city loses on uncollected taxes equates to between 100 and 150 firefighters or police. He says he’s making progress arguing that these are taxes already owed, not new taxes.
“Now you find conservatives in Washington who understand this is closing a loophole, it’s not a new tax,” says Cornett.
“Most cities are just hanging on, trying to keep the firefighters and police on the street. This is one way Congress can help local governments without it costing them anything.” (emphasis added)
Granted, that figure applies only to Oklahoma City, but it does give us some idea of just what we lose when online retailers don’t collect sales tax. Consider, too, that the 100 to 150 firefighters or police officers that sales tax would have paid for isn’t only a loss to the community, as important as that is. It’s also a loss of new jobs at a time when they are desperately needed. If Oklahoma City had had the $10 to $15 million a year that it’s due in uncollected sales tax, it could have created 100 to 150 new jobs.
The article concludes with a discussion of how sales tax contributes to state budgets:
Nationally, the cost of running local government is rising faster than tax revenue. Sinking property values are hurting real estate tax collections. Stagnant salaries have kept income tax flat in the states which impose one.
Oklahoma’s cities rely on sales taxes for 55 percent of their budget on average. In some places, sales tax covers more than 90 percent of the local budget.
Arkansas municipalities rely on it heavily too, for close to 50 percent of their income from sales taxes. Slack receipts have driven 15 Arkansas cities to institute sales tax increases so far this year, according to the Arkansas Municipal League.
Texas Comptroller Susan Combs calculates that in fiscal 2010, which ended August 31, her state lost $658 million in uncollected sales taxes. Sales tax contributes 55 percent of the state’s total income. (emphasis added)
These figures are revealing, particularly when you consider the fact that sales tax revenue has been declining for the past decade, due mainly to the increase in online shopping. Add up these three facts—sales tax provides at least 50% (in some places, up to 90%) of city or municipal income in Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Texas; sales tax revenue has been declining for a decade; and in this economy, other sources of revenue, such as income tax and property tax, are also declining—and it becomes clear why 15 Arkansas cities had to raise sales taxes this year. If online retailers were collecting the sales tax that’s already due, those increases would not have occurred.
Near the beginning of the article, Mick Cornett, mayor of Oklahoma City, directs a plea toward Congress: “We need help at the federal level. . . . There’s a limit to what we can do [locally].” If Congress is paying attention to what its counterparts at the state and city level are saying, not to mention to the needs of Americans for new jobs, firefighters, and police, the Main Street Fairness Act should pass soon, by a wide margin.