The Senate could vote this week on legislation that would close the “Amazon Loophole,” a tax loophole that allows online retailers like Amazon and eBay to avoid collecting sales taxes on most purchases made through their sites. The loophole gives online retailers a major advantage over their offline competitors, since they only have to collect sales taxes in states where they have a physical presence.
This vote is particularly important for state governments whose budgets continue to come up short and could therefore use the huge sums that the failure to tax Internet sales has denied them. In 2012, Internet retailers earned $225.5 billion costing states millions of dollars—California (over $4 billion), Texas ($1.7 billion), Florida ($1.4 billion), Illinois ($1 billion), and New York ($1.7 billion). Cities, whose budgets are also in dire straits, are also taking a hit. Take for instance, Los Angeles, where the projected e-commerce tax revenue loss for 2013 is over $95 million. In Chicago, it tops out at more than $55 million.
Technically, online retailers should be collecting taxes, however, due a complicated history of Supreme Court cases, Internet-based retail stores have not had to comply with the same sales tax rules that brick-and-mortar stores had to comply with. Regardless of whether or not retailers collect the taxes, buyers are technically still required to pay such taxes—although few actually do. In recent years, a few states have begun enacting laws to require Internet companies to collect sales taxes. New York was the first state to enact a law defining “nexus” or presence more broadly in order to be able to require Internet sellers to collect sales taxes. Since then, six other states (Rhode Island, North Carolina, Illinois, Arkansas, Connecticut, and California) have adopted similar laws that require online retailers with sales affiliates based within their borders to collect sales tax, while other states (South Dakota and Colorado) have enacted laws that require online companies to at least notify customers that they owe the tax. California's law also extends the obligation to collect sales taxes to online retailers that have subsidiaries or affiliated companies in the state. While some of these laws have been upheld, others—such as Illinois’s—have been declared unconstitutional based on the previous Supreme Court cases.
States have also tried to collect the tax directly from consumers through amnesty programs. Illinois, for example, implemented an amnesty program to allow customers to pay sales and use taxes on past online purchases, made between June 30, 2004, and December 31, 2010, without penalty. North Carolina’s program, on the other hand, specified that if Internet retailers commenced collecting sales tax on products sold to North Carolina state residents, the state would, in turn, forgive taxes, penalties, and interest for certain periods, and it would not seek information about customers who bought from them. Such approaches have not been too successful. Illinois, for instance, collected only about $10 billion of the estimated $150 billion that should have been paid.
As a result of state amnesty programs not working and laws being overturned, the pressure on Congress to pass federal legislation has been intense. The Marketplace Fairness Act of 2013 would give states the authority to levy sales taxes on online purchases even when the retailer isn’t based within a state’s borders. Passing the legislation would both remove an unfair advantage for online retailers and give cash-strapped states more authority to collect sales taxes. The bill states that the tax is only required for companies earning more than $1 million per year in sales, and states that do not currently have a sales tax would not be required to participate.
The bill has caused a wide divide between supporters and opponents. Online companies like Amazon and brick-and-mortar giants like Wal-Mart and Target support the bill, while other online giants like eBay oppose it. It has also created a divide within the Republican party; many conservative Republican lawmakers who are anti-tax and pro-business are against the bill, while others are acknowledging their small business constituents’ desires and supporting it.
More important that the benefits to states are the effects such a law would have on low-income families. In general, poorer families pay a larger share of their income in sales taxes than better-off families do because they have to spend almost everything they earn. The Internet sales tax, though still regressive, might have less of an effect on low-income consumers since they are not heavy users of online shopping. Low-income families’ lack of home computers, high-speed Internet, and lack of credit cards relative to higher income families means that they are already paying state sales taxes when they shop in traditional stores. The bill, if passed, merely levels the playing field by ensuring that everyone else pays the tax too. Moreover, the increased revenues from sales taxes could help states fund the types of public programs that benefit these communities—job training, education, public health—which have been cut due to state budgets.
Thus, the vote, which is scheduled for May 6th , is an important one for states and low-income communities they are trying to serve.
To see an interactive chart showing how much each state is estimated to loss in Internet sales taxes, click here.