Why online sales tax does NOT let states “tax beyond their borders”

One of the more common arguments we hear against online sales tax is that it would let states “tax beyond their borders.”

First, that statement is factually untrue—states can only tax state residents, and that wouldn’t change with online sales tax.

But online sales tax does mean that states could require out-of-state businesses to collect (not pay!) tax on sales to state residents. Some argue that this would be an expansion of state authority.

In fact, with online sales tax, states are simply taxing economic activity within the state—something they have always had the right to do.

And it’s worth noting that outside of sales tax, businesses that sell into a state are required to follow that states’ laws. For example, let’s say you live in California and purchase a camp stove from a company based in Minnesota. The camp stove is defective and causes a fire. The Minnesota company could be held liable for violating California product safety laws.

So why can’t states require out-of-state retailers to collect sales tax right now? Why do they need federal legislation, such as the Marketplace Fairness Act, to grant them that ability?

The answer goes back to a Supreme Court case, Quill v. North Dakota (1992). In that case, the court said that while it’s fine to require an out-of-state business that sells into the state to follow state law, it would be too difficult for out-of-state sellers to comply with state sales tax laws. In other words, Quill says that sales tax is an exception to the general rule that if you sell into a state, you have to abide by the state’s laws.

But with today’s technology, collecting sales tax is no longer difficult—so the reason behind the Quill decision no longer applies. And that means that there’s no reason for sales tax to be an exception to the rule.

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