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Internet Sales Tax Supporters’ Fantasies Cannot Quell Concerns as Alternatives Take Center Stage


Douglas Kellogg
March 13, 2014

Yesterday’s House Judiciary Committee hearing about alternatives to the Marketplace Fairness Act’s (MFA’s) brand of Internet sales tax mandate offered several options that Congress could focus on, the best of which would be “origin sourcing” – yet, the most imperative statements remain the prudent warnings about the risks posed by MFA, and the need for the House to avoid this legislation first and foremost. 

Indeed, the hearing was more of a referendum on MFA than anything, and for good reason since MFA represents such a dangerous departure from traditional taxpayer protections and interstate competition. National Taxpayers Union (NTU) submitted comments to the Committee arguing against MFA and providing observations on other policy avenues, and late last year commissioned a poll with the R Street Institute finding at minimum 57 percent of respondents opposed MFA (the level of opposition rose when they were presented with “pros and cons” of the proposal).

Those testifying in favor of MFA, or nominally a Streamlined Sales and Use Tax Agreement (SSUTA), joined some of the lawmakers on the Committee in making many misguided points. The most oft-repeated of them warrant a response:

1)  “Leveling the Playing Field.” We heard multiple times that “leveling the playing field” or protecting brick and mortar establishments was the major motivation behind an MFA-type policy.

Yet, the number of brick and mortar stores that do not also sell their wares online is smaller than ever; as of 2010 they represented 38 percent of online sales. Online sales and storefront sales have both similarities and differences in their business models, so “leveling the playing field” in the way MFA does could carelessly plow under job creation and other activity that benefits the economy – and, indirectly, benefits government coffers.

Nonetheless, it is possible for sellers to participate in both kinds of retailing. Government cannot turn back the technological tide, and it cannot be valid to simply note change as a reason for panicked action.

2) The Massive Compliance Burden for Small Business. There still was no answer to the compliance burden question. Despite repeated attempts at creative explanations by several panelists -- Mr. Kranz, Mr. Crosby, and Mr. Moschella -- the main response to the threat of being subject to the rules (and audits) of nearly 10,000 taxing jurisdictions seemed to be “software.”

A 2006 PricewaterhouseCoopers study demonstrated that small businesses with sales between $1 million and $10 million still face enormous costs that would threaten profitability, causing significant harm to interstate commerce and the economy during an especially fragile time.

Even more striking, a coalition of “e-tailers” wrote lawmakers warning that MFA could cost the signatories some 220,000 jobs.

Mr. Crosby expressed faith that Congress could craft a bill combined with software that would alleviate any problems. But, unless Congress somehow took on legal liability for any failure of this software, businesses will be on the hook for any mistakes the software makes, after the cost of implementing it into their existing systems.

The significance of this part of the MFA equation cannot be understated. Has there ever been a time Congress has so succinctly prescribed a particular tool to business to deal with a law? The occasions are quite rare. If passed into law, will their advice and words of comfort mean anything for the first small business to be visited by California auditors? Would these words survive litigation?

3) Overblown Attacks on Origin Sourcing. As one might expect, pro-Internet Sales Tax panelists targeted “origin sourcing”, which would apply our current “physical presence” sales tax standards to online sales.

Where MFA would effectively have you be the property of your home state no matter where you shopped, “origin sourcing” represents the familiar situation of paying sales taxes wherever you buy something.

During the hearing Mr. Kranz in particular described “origin sourcing” as turning our tax system on its head. How using a current actual or de facto standard in many states for traditional retail could be described as turning anything on its head is not clear. Most importantly however, “origin sourcing” is the only current solution that actually represents “fairness.” It would place brick-and-mortar and online sellers under the same rules whereas MFA would only put online sellers at the mercy of out-of-state auditors.

We also heard points brought up from an Art Laffer study that made great leaps in logic by assuming states would take all their new revenue from MFA and attribute it toward tax cuts. NTU Executive Vice President Pete Sepp took these points apart previously in a piece on ntu.org.

Another common theme centered on the revenue states could rake in with such a scheme – but as noted in NTU’s testimony, these assumptions are based upon a highly-flawed methodology developed by the University of Tennessee that overstates the likely amount of revenue at stake.

While few conclusions could be drawn from the hearing, what is clear is that while experts and Committee members continue to labor under serious misapprehensions as to how the MFA will affect businesses and taxpayers alike, it is prudent for the Committee to not to rush to an MFA mark-up but to continue exploring solutions to what is a complex problem. Representative Collins (R-GA) put it best when he cautioned that implementing a framework for internet sales tax might be “closing one Pandora’s box and opening another.”


 

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