The Wall Street Journal has an interesting poll up on its site today regarding taxation of retail sales on the internet. The question seems relatively simple: Should states require online retailers to collect sales tax? The thought process for most people probably goes a little something like this..."If it's a sale, it should be subject to sales tax." That probably explains why a huge number of people voted for the (misleadingly-worded) answer "State sales taxes should apply always." Problem is, the "right" answer (from NTU's perspective) is "State sales tax only with physical presence." So please, for the love of all that is holy in proper tax policy (hah!), head over to the WSJ and cast a vote for taxes only with physical presence.
As intuitively appealing as the answer that state sales tax should always apply is, it ignores years of Supreme Court jurisprudence and small-business protections that only require businesses with a legitimate physical presence in a state to collect and remit that state's sales tax. In other words, Andrew Moylan Incorporated would be required to collect Virginia state sales tax because Andrew Moylan Incorporated is physically located in Virginia, but should AM Inc. also be required to collect sales tax for California, New York, Michigan, or any of the other states where it is NOT located? The Supreme Court says no, and rightly so, because that would impose enormous burdens on businesses to navigate more than 7,400 different sales tax jurisdictions across the country.
Keep in mind that, technically, every single sale that is made online is ALREADY subject to taxation. If the seller has a physical presence in the buyer's state, they'll collect and remit sales tax just like your local Target or Wal-Mart. If the seller does NOT have a physical presence, then the buyer is supposed to report the purchase and pay a "use tax" on it directly with the state government. Unfortunately, this use tax regime is a disaster. Most buyers have no clue they owe these taxes and very few actually pay them, so it's not as if there's no problem here at all.
But if proponents of burdensome tax-collection plans were serious about "fairness," they'd advocate a revenue-neutral system that respects our Constitution and preserves tax competition. As NTU noted in a recent news release, one step to explore would be requiring all firms to collect sales taxes only for the jurisdiction where they're based, rather than for multitudes of governments around the country. Another would be supporting Senate Resolution 309 from Senators Wyden (D-OR) and Ayotte (R-NH), which affirms Congress' intent not to give states "the authority to impose any new burdensome or unfair tax collecting requirements on small internet businesses."