Time to Close the Internet Tax Loophole


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On July 1st, Representative Bill Delahunt (D-MA) introduced the Main Street Fairness Act, the latest legislative attempt to close the unfair tax loophole that has let internet companies off the hook for tens of billions in unpaid sales taxes.

With so many states facing severe budget deficits, state governments are desperate to collect the unpaid sales taxes on purchases from out-of-state internet and catalogue retailers. According to the definitive study by researchers at the University of Tennessee, the loss in sales tax revenues due to the loophole allowing internet and catalogue retailers to avoid sales taxes could range anywhere from $8.6 to $9.92 billion in 2010 and could shoot up to nearly $34 billion from 2010 to 2012. The NCSL provides a useful interactive map highlighting the revenue loss due to the loophole in each state. Unfortunately, the loss will only increase going forward as internet sales continue to become a larger and larger portion of total sales.

Delahunt’s legislation would fix the loophole by allowing states that join the Streamlined Sales and Use Tax Agreement to collect sales tax and use taxes on out-of-state retailers. Joining the agreement entails simplifying and standardizing state sales and use tax codes in order to make the system less unwieldy for out-of-state retailers. Already 23 states are part of the agreement, with many more taking steps toward standardization. In addition, the bill would exempt many small businesses and provide some funds to help with the cost of compliance.

For decades, state governments have been trying to collect sales taxes from these retailers. A 1992 Supreme Court ruling in Quill v. North Dakota made the task almost impossible by preventing state governments from requiring sellers to collect sales taxes unless the seller has a physical presence in the state. The Court ruled that states can require companies without physical presence within their borders to collect sales taxes only if given permission by a law enacted by Congress. Delahunt's bill would provide that permission.

For Joe Rinzel, Vice President for State Government Relations for the Retail Industry Leaders Association, the issue presented by the loophole is really about “fairness for both businesses and consumers.” As a brief by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy explains, the loophole is inherently unfair because it provides a distinct advantage to online retailers over community stores, which have to collect sales taxes. Compounding this, the failure to tax internet sales places a disproportionate burden on consumers who (for economic or other reasons) do not use the internet for shopping.

Despite the need for federal legislation, Mike Zapler reports that states are trying to act on their own. New York attempted to get around the Supreme Court Ruling by redefining what constitutes a physical presence in New York. Taking a different approach, Colorado passed a law requiring out-of-state retailers to provide the states with the names and items bought from residents. In both cases, the laws were immediately met with lawsuits from industry supporters.

The passage of Delahunt’s Main Street Fairness Act would serve to stop the harm done to ‘brick and mortar’ retailers by the ending the loophole while providing desperately needed revenue to state governments.

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