Reuters: State and local leaders on both sides of the aisle ask Congress to close online sales tax loophole

October 4, 2011
Reuters: Strapped states crave bigger online tax bite

Reuters: Strapped states crave bigger online tax bite

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.


Round-up of recent press on online sales tax collection

October 3, 2011
Recent press

Recent press on online sales tax collection

We’ve been looking at the recent editorials and news articles on online sales tax collection, and we’re encouraged to see that most of them are in favor of it—a position that we’ve long argued to be practical, sensible, and simply right.

From the Tulsa World, “Only fair: Online sales tax is necessary”:

No one likes paying taxes. They are, however, necessary to keep a city and state running. You might not like a sales tax, but you certainly like good roads.

If we’re going to have taxes, it is imperative that everyone pays their share. For years, some shoppers have been skirting local and state sales taxes by purchasing items online that are available locally. That is not fair to those who support local businesses and keep their cities running with local sales taxes. . . .

States and cities . . . need the income that they have coming. Local merchants, who choose to do business here and employ Tulsans and spend their hard-earned money with fellow local merchants and pay their sales taxes, deserve a level playing field. 

From the Bismarck Tribune, “Main Street Fairness Act: A bill to close the sales tax loophole”:

Studies show that states are losing about $23 billion annually in sales taxes. The tax is legally due on purchases but goes uncollected because the seller is not required to collect the tax and the purchaser fails to report and remit the tax due. This situation creates a huge disparity and an extreme disadvantage for our main street retailers who are competing with retailers selling over the Internet or by some other remote means. . . .

The Main Street Fairness Act addresses the issue of fairness and levels the playing field for all retailers. . . .

Cities, counties and state government rely on sales and use tax revenue to provide services to our residents and to build and maintain a high quality infrastructure for the businesses operating here. The Main Street Fairness Act is an important bill for the retail industry and states—it provides for fairness across the retail industry while permitting individual state sovereignty and supporting a fair sales tax system. . . .

The proposed legislation will go a long way to support and encourage growth in our local North Dakota businesses along with main street retail industry across the country. We encourage Sens. Kent Conrad and John Hoeven and Rep. Rick Berg to sign on to the legislation and support it when it comes up for a vote.

From the Detroit Free Press, “Online sales tax collection rules would level playing field and add funds to state”:

Main Street retailers, the backbone of America, stimulate local economies, build communities and provide good, stable, local jobs. In July retailers added 26,000 jobs to the national economy.

However, these jobs are being threatened by online retailers fighting to preserve an unfair price advantage of 6% over brick-and-mortar stores in Michigan. . . .

In today’s marketplace, the shape of commerce is changing, but the rules remain stuck in 1992—well before the era of the iPad, smart phones and even home Internet access. Online-only retailers are exempt from collecting sales tax at every point of purchase. . . .

Many consumers are often unaware that the tax on online and catalogue purchases already exists. When an online retailer fails to collect the sales tax, it falls to the consumer to report that tax directly to the state, which is often not done.

The Center for Business and Economic Research estimates that this year Michigan will lose more than $125 million in revenue due to the Internet sales tax loophole. As legislators grapple to fill budget gaps, this revenue would go a long way toward adequately funding essential public services: paving roads, keeping police and firefighters on the job, and providing our children with a quality education.

States have been compelled to take action in the absence of a national approach to sales tax collection. But a possible solution is the Main Street Fairness Act, introduced in Congress in July. The bill is designed to grant states the authority to set up a simple and equitable system of tax collection on remote sales and, ultimately, the ability to collect these taxes at the point of purchase. . . .

We need a 21st Century framework to ensure a marketplace that benefits online retailers in addition to brick-and-mortar retailers, who provide good local jobs, support our communities and drive America’s economy.

Our country is overdue for a national solution to the issue of sales tax collection.

From Gazette.net (Maryland), “Inaction on Internet sales tax hurts states”:

For Maryland, collecting sales tax on Internet purchases could yield additional revenue estimated to be in excess of $200 million annually, which the state sorely needs to bring budgets into balance given the lagging condition of our local economy and continued structural deficit.

Without this revenue, which is rightfully owed to the state, programs such as Medicaid, K-12 education and our transportation infrastructure needs will be unmet without additional tax increases. . . .

More importantly, though, such a policy change would level a slanted playing field for bricks and mortar retailers who invest in our local communities and currently charge and collect taxes on sales via the Internet. . . .

Moving forward . . . our federal representatives and Congress as an institution should end this debate and do what’s right for state governments and more importantly for countless mom-and-pop retailers that serve as the backbone of our nation’s economy.

From the Midland (MI) Daily News, “Local businesses like proposed Internet sales tax legislation”:

Legislators hope a newly proposed online sales tax bill will equalize what they consider an unfair playing field between Web retailers and small businesses. . . .

Michigan would save up to $141.5 [million] in lost sales tax revenue if the [state] bill becomes law, improve sales at brick-and-mortar retailers by as much as $126 million and create up to 1,600 jobs, according to a report from the Lansing-based Public Sector Consultants.

Jerry Meier, owner of Meier Camera Shop, 122. W. Main St. in Midland, said he cannot believe the state has chosen to miss out on those tax dollars for so long.  “We’ve wondered about this for some time. I think it’s going to make a difference,” Meier said. “Everyone says ‘buy local,’ but when it gets right down to it, they look at (online retailers) as an advantage.”

A 6 percent disadvantage when it comes to sales taxes makes a large difference in the long run, he said. . . .

“Legislators we’ve talked with understand that a sale is a sale is a sale regardless of where it takes place,” said Tom Scott, senior vice president of the Michigan Retailers Association. “Government should not be picking winners and losers by favoring one type of retailer over another — especially when it’s our hometown Michigan retailers who are being hurt by the current situation.”


In South Dakota, it’s the thought that counts

March 23, 2011

The South Dakota legislature today signed into law SB146, which includes certain notice requirements for retailers that do not have nexus in South Dakota. It’s aimed at increasing the collection of sales tax on remote (online and mail order) purchases and is similar to laws enacted by Oklahoma and Colorado.

Specifically, South Dakota’s law requires online and catalog retailers that do not collect South Dakota sales tax to display a notice to consumers informing them that sales tax is due on the purchase (unless the transaction is tax-exempt). The notice has to be posted on the retailer’s website or catalog and on the customer invoice. Retailers and auction websites with less than $100,000 in annual sales to South Dakota are exempt from complying with the law.

Section 9 of the law leaves us puzzled, though—it states, “No criminal penalty or civil liability may be applied or assessed for failure to comply with the provisions of this Act.”  Huh?

Even without penalties, the intent of the law is clear: South Dakota, like many other states, is willing to explore every means available to increase the collection of taxes that are already due.

We believe that retailers should be concerned about the growing (and frequently confusing) patchwork of state affiliate laws and notification requirements. Federal legislation will solve this problem once and for all, and we can’t help but wonder if all this state action is deliberately aimed at ensuring such legislation comes quickly.


OK City mayor tells President Obama it’s time to collect sales tax online

January 21, 2011

This article in The Oklahoman covers statements made by Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett to President Barack Obama that cities are losing revenues from sales tax—and that he and other mayors want the president to address the problem.

According to the article, Cornett said in an interview that he “told [Obama] there was some legislation on Capitol Hill (to address the problem), and he said he’d look into it.”

Oklahoma City likely loses $10 million to $15 million a year in sales tax revenue to online sellers, Cornett said.

Cornett was in Washington for a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and he told reporters that his colleagues shared the same concern.

Vocal support at the city level combined with recent activity at the state level suggest that the Main Street Fairness Act will soon be back on the federal agenda.


OK… I Can’t figure this one out…

February 17, 2010

Oklahoma is already a Full Member State of the Streamlined Sales and Use Tax Agreement, but rumor has it that legislators there are understandably frustrated by the lack of federal action to date to fully authorize interstate sales tax collection, so they too are considering introduction of an Amazon Tax.

This is where things get a little funny… The Oklahoma House is now considering HB 2716 which calls on the Oklahoma Attorney General:

“to establish the Unconstitutional Interstate Taxation Prevention Unit to prevent any state or local government entity other than the State of Oklahoma or its political subdivisions from enforcing or attempting to enforce or apply any income, sales, use, excise, gross receipts, franchise or other state or local tax in a manner inconsistent with the Due Process Clause or the Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution.”

Apparently one hand does not know what the other hand is doing… 🙂