The only thing worse than giving Amazon an unfair advantage over local businesses is creating that advantage by facilitating tax evasion.

And that’s exactly what the Supreme Court did in the early 1990s when it decided that the Commerce Clause of the Constitution barred state and local governments from requiring out-of-state retailers to collect sales taxes from their customers. Essentially, the court decided that a business without a “physical presence” in the state could not be required to collect sales taxes from customers the way that a company with a physical store in your state is required to collect sales taxes on whatever you buy there.

If you live in a state with a sales tax and you buy a product online from a company that has no physical presence in your state, you do owe sales tax on that purchase — but the state cannot make the online retailer collect it from you. You are supposed to pay the tax directly to the state (technically this tax is called a “use tax”). But this rule is obviously unenforceable and as a result most online buyers never pay that tax.

The Solution: The Marketplace Fairness Act of 2013

The Supreme Court’s decision does allow for Congress to explicitly authorize states to require these retailers (retailers with no physical presence in the state) to collect sales taxes, and this is the goal of a bill introduced in the House and Senate last week, the Marketplace Fairness Act (MFA) of 2013.

The MFA would essentially undo the effect of the Supreme Court decision for those states that adopt a minimal set of common rules (which mostly involve harmonizing sales tax rules for taxing jurisdictions within the state's borders). Twenty-four states have already joined what is called the Streamlined Sales and Use Tax Agreement (SSUTA), which includes a common set of sales tax rules, and would be authorized to require sales tax collection immediately under the MFA. Other states would be authorized if they meet the minimal standards set out in the bill.

Who Can Defend Tax Evasion?

The legislation has Republican and Democratic cosponsors in the House and Senate. This is not as surprising as it seems, given that the bill would not raise taxes but merely allow states to require retailers to collect the sales taxes that are already due.

It is difficult for opponents of the law to defend the current situation, which would basically be a defense of tax evasion. Opponents usually resort to claiming that it’s simply too difficult for online retailers to figure out what taxes would apply in the many different taxing jurisdictions where their customers are located.

But, as the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) has explained, new technology, combined with the harmonized sales tax rules under SSUTA, would make it relatively easy for internet retailers to determine what sale taxes apply in a customer’s jurisdiction. We know this because major retailers that have a “physical presence” in numerous states, like Best Buy and Barnes and Noble, already collect sales taxes on sales made over the Internet, in addition to those made inside their physical stores. Similarly, Amazon collects sales tax on behalf of certain merchants located all around the country that sell via its website, though it mostly refuses to do so on items it sells directly.

Netflix’s CEO summed up the reality of the alleged tax complexity problem when he said, “We collect and provide to each of the states the correct sales tax. There are vendors that specialize in this... It’s not very hard.”

Increased Chances for Passage

The MFA has been introduced in various forms in previous Congresses, but there is reason to think that its chances of passage are greater than before. One reason is that sponsors have settled on a high exemption level — $1 million. While it seems ridiculous that a retailer could make $950,000 in sales in a year without being required to collect sales taxes from its online customers, this change will placate those concerned about the bill’s effect on “small businesses.”

Another reason the chances for passage are increasing is the changing nature of retail business. As we continue to charge ahead into the digital age, it’s becoming undeniable that a sales tax based only on retailers with a physical presence is simply not adequate for the 21st century.

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