Online sales tax collection debated in Wall Street Journal

November 15, 2011
Wall Street Journal

Wall Street Journal: Should states require online retailers to collect sales tax?

The Wall Street Journal has published a debate on online sales tax collection. Taking the pro side is Michael Mazerov, Senior Fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, DC. Taking the con side is Steve DelBianco, Executive Director of NetChoice, a “coalition of e-commerce and online businesses.”

Both sides are clearly and cogently presented, and we highly recommend the article. Of course, as our regular readers know, we’ve long been advocates of the “pro” side. Mazerov does a terrific job of explaining why online sales tax collection is necessary and countering the most common objections to online sales tax collection, while DelBianco’s argument boils down to “it’s too difficult for small businesses.”

But we’ve worked hard to make sure that that’s not true. TaxCloud is designed specifically to remove the cost and complexity of online sales tax collection: It not only provides real-time sales tax calculation, it also handle exemptions and audits—plus, it’s easy to use and completely free.

A quick correction: At the head of the article, the description of the current sales tax situation says that state and local governments are pushing Congress to “require all online retailers to charge sales taxes in all states.” (emphasis added) “Charge” here should be “collect”—as we’ve said many, many times, sales tax is already due on online purchases. The question isn’t whether online retailers should charge (let alone, as some have suggested, pay) sales tax; no matter what, consumers owe sales tax on their online purchases. The question is whether online retailers should be required to collect sales tax. And the answer . . . is “yes.”


Pennsylvania adds online sales tax to income tax form

October 23, 2011

According to this article on the Morning Call, next year Pennsylvania’s state income tax forms will include a line for reporting sales tax due on online purchases. In past years, Pennsylvania residents had to use a separate form to calculate and report the sales tax due on their online purchases.

The article describes the reaction of a Pennsylvania resident to the news that she’s responsible for calculating and submitting the sales tax due on her online purchases:

Coplay resident Nereida Troxell said her husband often complains that some Internet sites collect sales tax while others don’t. She had no idea it’s up to the consumer to pay the tax when it’s not collected. Leaning on the customer to track that every time they buy a book or jar of vitamins online so they can pay it at the end of the year doesn’t seem fair, she said.

“That’s messed up,” Troxell said. “No, it doesn’t make sense at all.”

We agree. Doesn’t it make more sense for sales tax to be collected at the point of sale, whether you’re shopping online or in a bricks-and-mortar store?

The article also quotes a small business owner in Pennsylvania on the problems of the current sales tax collection rules:

“Any business on a main street in the country has been fighting [the inequity],” said Dana DeVito, general manager of the Moravian Book Shop. “It absolutely hurts a small business: bricks and mortar and our Internet sales as well.”

The Moravian Book Shop has an online bookstore, but when Pennsylvania residents buy books online, they have to pay a 6 percent sales tax. Residents of other states aren’t charged sales tax because the Moravian Book Shop has no physical presence outside Pennsylvania.

The entire article is well worth reading. It offers a good outline of the current online sales tax situation and how it’s affecting states.


Study says online sales tax collection = more jobs for Speaker Boehner’s Ohio

October 20, 2011

An article in Internet Retailer says that a new University of Cincinnati study found that “retail stores in Ohio would hire 11,000 new employees if a new system requiring sales tax collection by out-of-state online and catalog retailers went into effect.”

We’re not surprised—local stores provide three jobs for every one provided by an online retailer—but we’re glad to see solid figures on just how many jobs would be created if online retailers collected sales tax.

The article includes this quote from Jeff Rexhausen, associate director of research at the University of Cincinnati Economics Center:

“These are very, very significant findings . . . . Given the difficult economic circumstances affecting Ohio’s retail businesses and its state and local governments, finding a way to bring fairness to the online sales tax process would be a huge economic boon to the state.” (emphasis added)

We hope Speaker Boehner (R-OH) and the rest of Ohio’s delegation in Congress are listening. When Congress can create tens of thousands of new jobs and help ensure states have enough revenue for schools, firefighters, and police, all without creating a new tax or raising taxes—why wouldn’t they?


Update on Florida’s push for online sales tax collection

October 17, 2011
Florida

Florida: Striding ahead on online sales tax collection

Florida State Senator Evelyn Lynn (R-7th) and State Representative Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda (D-9th) are continuing the fight for online sales tax collection in Florida.

According to this article on WCTV.tv, Vasilinda “has re-filed HB 321—the Streamlined Sales and Use Tax Agreement (SSUTA)—in the Florida Legislature for the upcoming 2012 session” and Senator Lynn re-filed the companion SB 430:

The Representative believes that the passage of her bill would help to resolve projected shortfalls in our state’s budget.

Representative Rehwinkel Vasilinda has also filed House Memorial 323, a resolution that requests the U.S. Congress adopt the Main Street Fairness Act on the national level. Collecting sales tax from Internet purchases has bipartisan support, and Florida State Senator Evelyn Lynn (R-Ormond Beach) has filed a companion bill as well as a Senate Memorial Resolution to Congress on the SSUTA.

In a previous blog post, we pointed to a great Tallahassee Democrat editorial praising Vasilinda. Unfortunately the editorial is now behind a firewall on the newspaper website (a search in the archives for “Pinching the loophole,” the original title of the article, will bring it up if you’re interested enough to pay to read the entire editorial)—but we did quote from it extensively in our post, and you can also read a portion of it on the Stand With Main Street Florida website.

But that’s just one of the posts we’ve written about the huge support for online sales tax collection in Florida. That support comes from business groups, the business-backed think tank Florida TaxWatch, small business owners, and of course, other newspaper editorials.

As our regular readers may recall, we even traveled to Florida in April of this year to attend their Main Street Fairness Day in Tallahassee, where we spoke alongside other Florida businesses in support of the corresponding bills from the Florida legislature’s previous session.

We’re behind Sen. Lynn and Rep. Rehwinkel Vasilinda 100% in their efforts on behalf of Florida. It seems pretty clear that most of Florida’s residents and businesses are behind them, too.


Growing momentum for local online sales tax movement

October 13, 2011

The local and state efforts toward online sales tax collection is gaining momentum, as is clear from the recent deluge of local articles on the issue. Here’s a selection:

– from the Holland Sentinel (MI), “The case for fairness: A sale is a sale is a sale”:

According to a report released last month by Lansing-based Public Sector Consultants, the sales tax loophole has a significant negative impact on job makers and the state’s economy. The study found that closing the loophole would directly lead to the creation of as many as 1,600 new jobs, would increase investment in Michigan’s economy in the form of sales at brick-and-mortar retail outlets by as much as $126 million per year and would save the state as much as $141.5 million in otherwise lost sales tax revenue from electronic remote sales in 2012 alone.

– from NorthJersey.com, “Internet retailers might lose tax edge”:

In my mind, it comes down to a question of fairness, as stated by John Holub, president of the New Jersey Retail Merchants Association:

“Online-only retailers are costing the State of New Jersey hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue and are underselling New Jersey’s small-business owners. It’s time for New Jersey to modernize its tax structure and close this unfair tax loophole.”

– from the Bismarck Tribune, “It’s simply an issue of fairness”:

A customer goes into a local business to check out a product. This person finds a computer, makes an online purchase of that same item and avoids paying the sales tax.

Is that fair to a North Dakota brick-and-mortar business that employs our state’s citizens, invests in the community and helps drive the local economy? I don’t think so.

That’s why we need The Main Street Fairness Act. This legislation will close the loophole that gives online retailers a competitive advantage over the local businesses.

– from Tampa Bay Online, “Solution sought for sales tax ‘loophole'”:

Some shoppers look over a product at local stores and then buy it online in hopes of avoiding the sales tax, Alpine said. Stores end up being treated like a showroom.

“It needs to be an equal playing field,” he said.

“Without a doubt this is an enforcement issue that ultimately can only be fully resolved if the federal government weighs in,” state Rep. John Legg, R-Port Richey, said in an email.


Connecticut is wrong to pursue Amazon for past uncollected sales tax

October 10, 2011
Hartford, CT capitol building

Hartford, CT capitol building

According to an AP article, Connecticut claims that Amazon.com owes the state for past uncollected sales tax:

Connecticut plans to press Amazon for the taxes the state believes it should have collected at least during the month or so when the new law was in effect and Amazon still had affiliations with websites in Connecticut through its Amazon Associates Program. Amazon severed those ties in June. . . .

Connecticut plans to evaluate some other connections Amazon has with people in the state and start building a case that Sullivan predicted will ultimately be decided in court. (emphasis added)

But unless we’re missing something, the dates just don’t add up.

  • Governor Malloy signed the new budget bill on May 8.
  • On June 10, Amazon sent letters to its associates in Connecticut terminating its contracts with them.
  • The so-called Amazon Tax, as part of the state budget, went into effect on July 1.

What are we missing here? Is the month-long overlap that Connecticut claims actually between the date the budget bill was signed and the date Amazon terminated its Connecticut associates program?

Amazon ended its associates program twenty days before the law went into effect. So Amazon did not have associates in the state when the law went into effect, and therefore it doesn’t owe the state for any uncollected sales tax that would have been due under the law.

Connecticut officials are suggesting that they will ultimately end up bringing a lawsuit against Amazon. Unless they have another argument to offer, we question their standing to bring such a claim. There’s just no way that Amazon had in-state associates when the law went into effect.


Tennessee strikes deal with Amazon

October 9, 2011

Tennessee and Amazon have agreed to a deal similar to the one between California and Amazon. This deal requires Amazon to begin collecting sales tax for the state in 2014—unless federal legislation on online sales tax has passed by then—and the company will create 3500 full-time and several thousand seasonal jobs in the state. This Missouri News Horizon article has the details.

The agreement comes after years of back-and-forth between Amazon and the Tennessee government. Former governor Phil Bredesen, who preceded current governor Bill Haslam, made a deal for Amazon to bring several distribution centers to Tennessee, creating 1500 jobs, in exchange for an exemption from collecting state sales tax. There had been strong objection to that deal from local Tennessee retailers and others, and there was some question as to whether Haslam, once elected, would uphold the deal made by Bredesen:

The new agreement is a dramatic shift from the original deal struck by the state with Amazon, in which former Gov. Phil Bredesen and his team evidently agreed to allow Amazon to forego collecting sales taxes in exchange for creating hundreds of jobs with distribution centers in Hamilton and Bradley counties.

Haslam had agreed to honor that original deal, and state officials Thursday insisted the new agreement does not mean the state has gone back on its word. . . .

“I’ve been asked several times over the course of the last couple of months if working on an agreement like this is doing what we said we would do as a state. The answer is yes,” Haslam said. “The scope of the project has changed, with the addition of newly planned facilities here, and that conversation in the Legislature and in states across the country has had an impact.”

The agreement won’t apply if federal legislation is enacted before 2014:

Haslam said the agreement applies unless a national solution, which would bring all states under the same framework on state sales tax collections, comes first. Many people believe Congress should act to make application of sales tax law the same for online and traditional retailers.

Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam has spoken publicly in support of the Main Street Fairness Act in the past, and he mentioned it again during the announcement:

“Of the online retail sales where tax is not being collected Amazon is only about 10 percent of it,” Haslam said, adding that that is why he has called for a national solution. “It’s not just about Amazon.”

Paul Misener, Amazon’s vice president for global public policy, was present at the announcement and also made a statement that included strong support for federal legislation:

The Amazon executive said his company supports efforts to streamline sales tax collections nationally.

“The sales tax issue must be resolved in Congress,” Misener said. “It’s the only way the state of Tennessee will be able to retain all the sales tax revenue that can be collected for the state.

“We are committed to going to Washington with the state’s leaders, both here in Nashville and also in Washington, to obtain that sales tax legislation as soon as possible.”

With all this vocal support for the Main Street Fairness Act from both Amazon and state legislators, there seems to be a general consensus that federal legislation is the best solution for everyone. But in its absence, states will do whatever they can to try to make sure sales tax is collected online as well as in local stores.

We hope Congress is noticing the rapidly increasing support for the Main Street Fairness Act among state legislators. These are the people who work where the rubber meets the road and know exactly what their states and communities need to function properly.

Unfortunately, in this case they are not the ones who have the power to make sure states and communities get what they need. That’s Congress. But members of Congress need to listen to what local and state legislators are telling them and then put their support behind Main Street Fairness Act.


St. Petersburg (FL) Times: Florida needs Main Street Fairness and Streamlined

October 4, 2011
St. Petersburg Times

St. Petersburg Times: Florida need Streamlined and Main Street Fairness

A new editorial in the St. Petersburg Times urges Florida lawmakers to adopt the simplified sales tax guidelines of the Streamlined Sales and Use Tax Agreement and support the federal Main Street Fairness Act.

The whole editorial is worth reading—it’s not long, and it’s cogent, incisive, and well-argued—but we had to quote this section in its entirety:

For years, every major Florida business group has pushed for the state to join the Streamlined group, rightly arguing the outdated tax code discriminates against their members. While any business with a traditional store in Florida must collect the 6 percent state sales tax on goods, out-of-state online-only merchants don’t. That gives them an enormous pricing advantage. Florida TaxWatch has estimated the shift to e-commerce has cost at least 100,000 Florida jobs. And a University of Tennessee study estimates Florida will lose more than $800 million in uncollected sales taxes this year for goods bought through merchants like Amazon.com.

Even Republican-controlled Texas has joined California and New York in championing this cause of tax fairness. Meanwhile, in Tallahassee, favoring out-of-state carpetbaggers over businesses that employ Floridians is far more acceptable. (emphasis added)

We talked in a recent post about how not collecting sales tax online has cost jobs by keeping funds that might pay for new firefighters and police out of city coffers. In Oklahoma City, for instance, the mayor suggested that online sales tax collection could have created 100 to 150 jobs for firefighters and police officers.

The TaxWatch statistic in this St. Petersburg Times editorial refers to another way that e-commerce is costing jobs. Bricks-and-mortar retailers employ far more people than online retailers. In fact, for every person hired at an online retailer, four would have been hired at a bricks-and-mortar retailer.

We need to level the playing field between online and bricks-and-mortar retailers and give bricks-and-mortar retailers a fighting chance to protect retail jobs.

Take a look at the rest of the St. Petersburg Times editorial. It’s worth a read.


Michigan becomes latest state to consider affiliate nexus legislation

September 29, 2011
Michgan State Capitol

MLive: Michigan becomes latest state to consider affiliate nexus legislation

Michigan has become the latest state to consider affiliate nexus legislation, according to this article on MLive.com. Although the state bill (HB 5004) is being referred to by the Michigan media and even several of its sponsors as “the Main Street Fairness Act”, it is completely different from the federal bill of the same name, introduced in July by Senator Dick Durbin.

The state bill would require online retailers with affiliates in Michigan to collect sales tax.

The federal bill, on the other hand, would not affect affiliates at all. It would authorize states that have simplified their sales tax laws—as already Michigan has—to require all online retailers, regardless of location, to collect sales tax.

The reasons for supporting online sales tax collection make a lot of sense:

“We are trying to level the playing field for Michigan retail businesses,” said Barb Stein, owner of Great Northern Trading in downtown Rockford. “We want to make sure that anybody that sells something in Michigan subject to sales tax has to collect it, including Internet retailers.”

Stein was part of the press conference Tuesday unveiling the proposed Michigan Main Street Fairness Act, co-authored by state Reps. Eileen Kowall, R-White Lake Township, and Jim Ananich, D-Flint.

Closing the loophole could save the state $141.5 million in lost sales tax revenue, generate as much as $126 million in additional sales and lead to the creation of 1,600 jobs,according to a report released last week by Lansing-based Public Sector Consultants.

“The uneven playing field reduces economic activity across the state and prevents small businesses in Michigan from adding jobs,” said Sikkema, a senior policy fellow at the nonpartisan think tank and a former Republican House minority leader from Grandville.

But the federal Main Street Fairness Act would have all these benefits without the drawbacks of the recent rash of state-by-state “affiliate nexus” or so-called “Amazon tax” bills. Retailers usually respond to state affiliate nexus bills by dropping their affiliates in the state, which means the in-state affiliates have to either move out of state or face an enormous drop in income. What’s more, these bills have repeatedly proven not to bring an increase in sales tax revenue—they’re simply ineffective.

There’s a terrific editorial in favor of the Michigan bill that laments the fact that state affiliate nexus laws are necessary, that Congress hasn’t yet passed the federal Main Street Fairness Act:

Michigan businesses have struggled enough without politicians adding to their troubles. Yet the burden they’ve faced in recent years has not been relieved by a simple measure Congress could take. Congress could have empowered states to collect taxes on remote sales made to their citizens — sales over the Internet and through catalogues. E-commerce in particular has become an increasingly common way to do business. . . .

Jobs that could have been created in our local communities will not be created, because bricks-and-mortar retailers in Michigan operate at a disadvantage against their virtual rivals. If e-tailers can spare their customers the 6 percent sales tax, main street stores get undercut on price, especially where large purchases are concerned.

With Congress failing to act, members of the state legislature are going to take another run at it this important question. Tuesday, state Reps. Eileen Kowall, R-White Lake Township, and Jim Ananich, D-Flint, introduced the Main Street Fairness Act.

The act would level the playing field between in-state retailers — who pay taxes and employ people in Michigan — and remote retailers who do not. The bills should be passed by lawmakers.

The greatest irony is, Michigan has already done all the work needed and enacted laws necessary to simplify its sales tax laws in accordance with the Streamlined Sales and Use Tax Agreement. The federal Main Street Fairness Act requires states to do this before they can mandate all online retailers to collect sales tax. So Michigan has already made sales tax collection easier for businesses and is poised to benefit from the federal legislation as soon as it is passed by Congress—but the state legislators still feel the need to look at affiliate nexus legislation because right now it’s the state’s only recourse to get at uncollected online sales tax revenue without Congress taking action. Hopefully Congress will soon pass the already pending Main Street Fairness Act, so Michigan is not forced to enact H.B. 5004 and inadvertently hurt its thousands of affiliate marketing businesses.

We understand why Michigan is considering affiliate nexus legislation, but the state would do better to put its full support behind the federal Main Street Fairness Act. It’s better for everyone—states, affiliates, online retailers, and consumers.


THUD (Part 2) California legislature repeals ABX1 28 – All to work to pass the Main Street Fairness Act by July 2012!

September 10, 2011

California legislature approves amended AB 155, repeals ABX1 28! AMZN to reinstate CA affiliates!

[UPDATED 9/10 @ 6:30 AM PDT] We were very excited to learn that in the final hour of their 2011 legislative session, the California legislature overwhelmingly passed a heavily amended version of AB I55  (California Senate voted 39 to 1 in favor, the Assembly voted 59 to 8 in favor).

Although the text of the amended bill is not yet now available for public inspection (text of substantive amendment included below), it has been reported on by several authorative sources, including California Senate Republican Leader Bob Dutton (R-Rancho Cucamonga), California BOE Member George Runner, the Associated Press, and the San Francisco Chronicle.

Here’s what we have learned so far:

  1. AB 155 (as amended) repeals ABX1 28 (see our original post “THUD! Did Congress Hear That?“)
  2. Amazon will reinstate its 10,000+ California affiliates

    “This bipartisan, win-win legislation will allow Amazon to bring thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of investment dollars to California, and welcome back to work tens of thousands of California-based advertising affiliates,” Paul Misener, Amazon’s vice president of global public policy, said in a statement.

  3. All parties (including California legislators, local and national retailers, and Amazon) will work with Congress to pass federal legislation (the Main Street Fairness Act) by July 2012!
  4. If Congress fails to act by July 2012, the original terms of ABX1 28 will be reinstated.

As we have stated several times before, we firmly believe this is the best course of action:

As states such as California and Illinois enact affiliate nexus legislation (so-called Amazon tax laws) to attempt to collect sales tax due on online purchases, small businesses across the country are being caught in the crossfire. Affiliate marketers are forced to either find entirely new sources of revenue or flee to another state. Meanwhile, online retailers that rely on affiliate marketing are forced to either eliminate their established sales and marketing teams or come into compliance with the new laws.

The better solution is the anticipated Main Street Fairness Act, which incorporates the Streamlined Sales and Use Tax Agreement (SSUTA). SSUTA streamlines and simplifies state sales tax regulations, making it easy for retailers to collect sales tax for multiple states. SSUTA is the cooperative effort of 44 states (including California and Illinois), businesses, political leaders, and industry associations. States that adopt SSUTA have committed to make sales tax collection easier for all retailers, online and offline, large and small.

Although AB 155 has passed the legislature, Governor Brown has until October 7th to sign it into law; if he doesn’t—well, then all bets are off. Timing-wise, one would expect (or at least hope) the governor will make a decision in advance of the end-of-September deadline for Amazon to submit its half-a-million signatures in support of its referendum for voter repeal ABX1 28.

We are truly inspired by this dramatic twist of events in the legislature of the eighth-largest economy in the world. We look forward to the promised bipartisan effort in Washington, DC, to enact the Main Street Fairness Act by July of next year!

We would also like to send our most sincere (and hopefully not premature) congratulations to all of our affiliate friends and supporters in the state of California!

[UPDATED 9/10 @ 6:30 AM PDT]  The new Section 6 represents the substantive amendment to AB155:

SEC. 6.

  1. (a) Sections 1 and 2 of this act shall become operative on the effective date of this act.
  2. (b) Section 3 of this act shall become operative on either of the following dates:
    1. If federal law is enacted on or before July 31, 2012, authorizing the states to require a seller to collect taxes on sales of goods to in-state purchasers without regard to the location of the seller, and the state does not, on or before September 14, 2012, elect to implement that law, Section 3 of this act shall become operative on January 1, 2013, and Section 2 of this act shall become inoperative on that same date.
    2. If federal law is not enacted on or before July 31, 2012, authorizing the states to require a seller to collect taxes on sales of goods to in-state purchasers without regard to the location of the seller, Section 3 of this act shall become operative on September 15, 2012, and Section 2 of this act shall become inoperative on that same date.
  3. (c) The Director of Finance shall, on or before August 15, 2012, certify in writing to the Governor, the Senate Committee on Rules, the Speaker of the Assembly, and the State Board of Equalization whether or not federal law has been enacted on or before July 31, 2012, authorizing the states to require a seller to collect taxes on sales of goods or services to in-state purchasers without regard to the location of the seller.
  4. (d) For the period between June 28, 2011, and the effective date of this act, state law regarding the imposition and collection of use taxes, including, but not limited to, any reporting requirement imposed on a seller, shall be administered and applied in accordance with state law as it read on June 27, 2011.

SEC. 4. SEC. 7. This act is an urgency statute necessary for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health, or safety within the meaning of Article IV of the Constitution and shall go into immediate effect. The facts constituting the necessity are:

In order to lessen the burden at the earliest possible time on small businesses that are otherwise required to collect use tax, it is necessary that this act take effect immediately.

In order to clarify and confirm at the earliest possible time the obligations of certain retailers to collect use taxes from California purchasers, it is necessary that this act take effect immediately.


Amazon and retailers agree with California to push for federal legislation resolution (Main Street Fairness Act)

September 8, 2011

As reported moments ago by the Sacramento Bee (read here), Amazon and other national retailers have agreed to suspend their referendum effort in exchange for a concerted effort to resolve this issue (of internet sales tax collection) by July 2012.

We recommend reading the article directly, as the SacBee has this issue well covered.

9/9/2011 UPDATECalifornia legislature approves amended AB 155, repeals ABX1 28! AMZN to reinstate CA affiliates! All to work to pass the Main Street Fairness Act!


California’s latest twist in sales tax battle will hurt local retailers in favor of a certain online auction site

August 27, 2011
Los Angeles Times

Los Angeles Times: New online sales tax legislation

According to a Los Angeles Times article, the next move in the battle over California’s online sales tax collection law comes from supporters:

A coalition of giant, brick-and-mortar retailers and their legislative allies have come up with a new strategy to try to head off Amazon.com’s referendum to overturn the state’s new Internet sales tax law.

On Thursday, lawmakers amended a bill in the Senate Appropriations Committee and sent it to the full Senate for a vote next week. If the bill gains approval from the Senate, the state Assembly and the governor, its passage would have the effect of nullifying Amazon’s current drive to qualify a referendum for the June 2012 budget.

To recap the situation thus far: A law requiring online retailers with California affiliates to collect sales tax went into effect on July 1. Amazon immediately dropped its affiliates in California, and on July 8 the company filed a petition to put a referendum to repeal the law on the ballot, for California voters to decide on. The petition was approved, and since then Amazon has been campaigning to collect the 505,000 signatures needed to put the referendum on the ballot.

And  now it seems that supporters of California’s legislation have made the latest move. According to the LA Times, “Passage of a new law would supersede the old law, making the referendum invalid.”

Apparently the new bill raises the small seller exception—where the previous law exempted online retailers with less than $500,000 in annual remote sales from collecting sales tax, the new one raises that threshold to $1 million. That change was enough to get a certain online auction company to drop its opposition to the law, so legislators are more optimistic about its chances.

Believe it our not, this latest escalation of the small seller exception is as dramatic as it is surprising. The economic impact of this change will be significant, however the lawmakers in Sacramento seem to have glossed over that fact:

…add an urgency clause, and increase the small business exemption from $500,000 to $1 million. Staff notes that BOE does not track micro-level data on affiliates that may be subject to the exemption, so the fiscal impact related to increasing the threshold in indeterminable. (emphasis added)

Are they serious? They think it’s indeterminable? Affiliates have nothing to do with the revenue collection, it’s the retailers that collect, not the affiliates. This statement is pure misdirection. I expect Ms. Betty Yee and quite a few analysts at the Board of Equalization would dispute that they could not calculate the loss of revenue, and the legislature should immediately review some of their recent findings on the subject (like this and this).

This amendment blatantly discriminates against small local main street retailers who are not afforded any such exception—proper tax policy should treat all retailers and taxpayers equally. Surely there are a few local retailers who would love to not have to collect the sales tax on their first $1 million in sales. For a bit of perspective on this matter, let’s listen to Amazon’s own Mr. Paul Misener in his testimony before the United States House of Representatives in 2006

To be sure, no one expects truly small businesses to do the work of sales tax collection alone but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be required to do it at all. By analogy we require small business persons to sign their legal documents in ink but we don’t expect them to make their own ballpoint pens.

Amazon.com will offer sales tax collection services to our small seller customers. I am sure that our on-line competitors also can and will. Of course, this discussion so far as been limited to small businesses conducting interstate sales. What about small main street businesses selling locally? Even after a decade of e-commerce, as Brian [Bieron of eBay] has pointed out, still over 90 percent of retail sales are off line.

Small main street businesses already collect sales tax and, thus, have both the administrative burden of tax collection and the higher prices caused by it. If out of state small businesses would not have to collect, then their main street brethren would be saddled with a competitive disadvantage both as to burden and price. Hopefully policy makers never would conclude that this disparity would be fair to main street small businesses. (emphasis added)

We couldn’t agree more.

We continue to believe that all this contentiousness is unnecessary. Energy would be better spent on federal legislation on online sales tax collection—which Amazon and lawmakers support. It solves many other problems, too. To quote from ourselves:

As states such as California and Illinois enact affiliate nexus legislation (so-called Amazon tax laws) to attempt to collect sales tax due on online purchases, small businesses across the country are being caught in the crossfire. Affiliate marketers are forced to either find entirely new sources of revenue or flee to another state. Meanwhile, online retailers that rely on affiliate marketing are forced to either eliminate their established sales and marketing teams or come into compliance with the new laws.

The better solution is the anticipated Main Street Fairness Act, which incorporates the Streamlined Sales and Use Tax Agreement (SSUTA). SSUTA streamlines and simplifies state sales tax regulations, making it easy for retailers to collect sales tax for multiple states. SSUTA is the cooperative effort of 44 states (including California and Illinois), businesses, political leaders, and industry associations. States that adopt SSUTA have committed to make sales tax collection easier for all retailers, online and offline, large and small.

We hope that the Main Street Fairness Act will soon make these state battles moot. It’s the best solution for all.


Main Street Fairness Act could mean elimination of inheritance tax, says IN lawmaker

August 24, 2011

Indiana State Senator Luke Kenley, chairman of Indiana’s Senate Committee on Appropriations and president of the Streamlined Sales Tax Governing Board, last week issued a statement urging Indiana’s congressional delegation to support the Main Street Fairness Act, which was introduced on July 29 by Senator Dick Durbin. He suggested that should the bill pass, Indiana could eliminate the state’s inheritance tax:

Kenley (R-Noblesville) also said he hopes state lawmakers would agree to use the nearly $200 million in additional revenue the state would receive from the passage of the federal legislation to eliminate Indiana’s inheritance tax and reduces others . . . .

“Hoosier bricks-and-mortar businesses are at competitive disadvantages with online retailers who often do not collect sales taxes on Internet purchases, costing our state as much as $200 million annually,” Kenley said. “Though consumers are required to report and pay a ‘use tax’ on Internet purchases when they file their taxes each year, many unknowingly fail to do so, costing Indiana and other states substantial revenue—an estimated $11.4 billion nationwide each year.”

Kenley isn’t the first to suggest that improving the collection of sales tax could allow states to cut other taxes. As we blogged about a few months ago, West Virginia delegate John Doyle has said that if online retailers regularly collected West Virginia sales tax, the state might be able to end its tax on groceries.

Kenley also pointed out that the Main Street Fairness Act will benefit Indiana retailers as well as the state’s schools and other essential services:

A 1992 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, known as the Quill decision, determined retailers are not required to collect sales taxes in states where they do not have physical locations unless mandated by Congress. As a result, many consumers visit a store to compare or test products, but then make their purchases online—often avoiding payment of sales taxes, Kenley said.

If enacted, the Main Street Fairness Act would create a uniform sales-tax collection system ensuring all businesses—both online and brick-and-mortar retailerscollect uniform sales tax for purchases. The act would also relieve consumers of the legal burden to report to state tax departments the required sales tax they owe for online purchases.

“I am asking our congressional delegation to support a modern, streamlined, pro-business initiative that will help our thousands of retailers who are being discriminated against under the current policy,” Kenley said. “This is not a new tax but one that is already owed and not being collected. With sales tax serving as Indiana’s largest source of revenue, our K-12 schools, higher education institutions, public safety and other essential state services are hit the hardest by the current system. It’s time we level the playing field for our local businesses and remove this unfair burden from Hoosier consumers.”

We applaud Senator Kenley for making his support for the Main Street Fairness Act known to his state’s DC representatives. The legislation is hugely important for states, since it gives them the ability to determine for themselves how (and whether) online sales tax should be collected for the state. But since it’s federal legislation that will be enacted (or not) by Congress, state lawmakers need to make sure their representatives in DC know just how important the bill is for them.

We hope other state lawmakers will follow Senator Kenley’s lead and contact their state’s representatives in Congress to let them know that they support the Main Street Fairness Act.


MA Committee on Revenue endorses bill to join Streamlined

August 19, 2011

According to a State House News Service article in the Boston Herald, Massachusett’s Committee on Revenue last week endorsed a state bill that would allow Massachusetts join the Streamlined Sales and Use Tax Agreement (SSUTA).

Although the article refers to the bill as H 3672, our research shows that H 3672 is a bill on accessible housing for people with disabilities. It’s our guess that this is simply a typo in the article and that the actual bill the Committee on Revenue approved is H 3673, a revision of H 1695 that the committee “reported favorably” on August 15 and that aims to “promote sales tax fairness for Main Street retailers.” H 3673 would “authorize the commissioner to petition the Streamlined Sales Tax Governing Board to allow the commonwealth to become an associate or full member of the Streamlined Sales Tax Governing Board.”

We strongly support the commonwealth’s efforts to simplify and standardize their sales and use tax laws by joining SSUTA—we even went up to Boston in April to testify in support of the bill. Our testimony read, in part:

This bill is very important to alleviate the imbalance being felt by local retailers across the state, as increasingly they are seeing consumers browse their stores and ask clerks questions, only to go home and buy from online retailers to save on sales tax. Over time, the vanishing sales tax revenue has hurt not only the state, which is losing the sales tax proceeds, and local retailers, who are losing business, but even Massachusetts residents themselves, as the loss of sales tax revenue has resulted in dramatic cuts to local services, including police protection, fire protection, and schools.

In addition, by adopting this legislation Massachusetts would send a clear message to Washington, D.C., that it is time for federal action to correct the growing inequity between local retailers that have to collect sales tax and online retailers that do not. It’s time to shift the burden of calculating, reporting, and remitting tax on online purchases from individual consumers to online retailers. It’s time for local communities to start receiving the sales tax revenue they are due, so they can stop cutting services because of lack of funds. It’s time to recognize that collecting sales tax on online purchases is fair, easy, and the right thing to do. It’s time to pass the Main Street Fairness Act.

True, joining SSUTA is just a first step toward resolving the unfair practice of requiring local small businesses to collect sales tax while not requiring the same of larger, and frequently more technologically sophisticated, out-of-state retailers. It’s only a first step, but it’s a crucial step. Momentum on this issue is building, and Massachusetts now has the opportunity to stand united with twenty-four other states and say that the problem of uncollected sales tax, which affects nearly every state in the nation, needs a national solution, and that national solution has been provided by SSUTA.

If Massachusetts does become the latest state to join the Streamlined Sales and Use Tax Agreement, it would simplify Massachusetts’ sales tax regulations, making it easier for businesses (particularly those outside Massachusetts) to collect Massachusetts sales tax.

We applaud the Committee on Revenue for approving this sensible legislation, and we hope to see Joint Committee on Rules show the same wisdom. We look forward to the Bay State  becoming the 25th member of the Streamlined Sales and Use Tax Agreement.


E-commerce sales growing every quarter, at highest level in Q2 2011

August 19, 2011

According to an Internet Retailer article on newly released U.S. Commerce Department figures for the second quarter, e-commerce sales are up 17.5% from a year ago and are at the highest level ever—4.6% of all retail sales:

U.S. e-commerce sales totaled $47.51 billion during the second quarter, up 17.5% from $40.42 billion a year ago, according to seasonally adjusted estimates released today by the U.S. Commerce Department.

E-commerce accounted for approximately 4.6% of total retail sales during the second quarter, its highest level on record, the Commerce Department says. Total adjusted retail sales during the second quarter reached $1.04 trillion, according to today’s report. E-commerce accounted for 4.5% of total retail sales during the first quarter of 2011, and 4.2% of total retail sales during the second quarter of 2010, the Commerce Department says.

Interestingly, Internet Retailer found a discrepancy in the Commerce Department report:

When excluding sales in categories not commonly bought online—automobiles, fuel, grocery and restaurant meals—Internet Retailer calculates that e-commerce accounted for 8.4% of total retail sales during the quarter, up from 7.3% a year ago. This calculation is based on Q2 retail sales totals the Commerce Department released last week; that report put total adjusted retail sales for Q2 at $1.16 trillion, higher than the retail total released today.  The Commerce Department did not immediately respond to a request for explanation about the difference.

A comparison between the change in online sales and change in bricks-and-mortar sales is particularly stark at Saks:

“We are approaching the fall season a bit more cautiously and will continue to be very strategic with our expense, capital and inventory spending,” says Stephen Sadove, CEO of Saks Inc., where online sales were up 50% during the second quarter from a year ago, and bricks-and-mortar comparable store sales were up 15.5%. (emphasis added)

Those are incredible figures: Q2 online sales at Saks were up 50% from a year ago, while bricks-and-mortar store sales were up only 15.5%.

Those statistics make it easy to understand why so many Main Street retailers are concerned about online sales. While Saks has an online store, the local bike store probably doesn’t, and it’s likely to lose many of its sales to online retailers.

Online retailers should be required to play by the same rules as Main Street retailers. When exempting online retailers from collecting sales tax gives them a perceived 10% price advantage, how can any Main Street retailer compete?