Online Sales Tax Collection Inching Closer?


19145168It’s been nearly 25 years since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Quill case regarding online sales – that states could not require a company that has no physical presence in their state to collect the state’s sales tax when they sell their goods to a resident of that state through the mail or via the Internet.

The Court held that requiring the collection of sales tax, without congressional authorization, constitutes interference with interstate commerce in violation of the U.S. Constitution. So Congress needs to pass legislation allowing the states to require online sellers to collect the tax. But that has still not happened.

The Marketplace Fairness Act (MFA) legislation would provide the needed authority, but hasn’t gotten enough support.

The opposition primarily comes from two groups: (1) some of the Internet-based companies which would have to collect the tax; and (2) people who view the legislation as a new tax.

Internet companies object to the administrative burden of collecting and remitting the tax, and they obviously want to maintain their current price advantage over the local brick-and-mortar retailers and other Internet companies that have a physical presence in many states, who must already collect and remit sales tax.

Those who consider it a new tax are, at least technically-speaking, simply wrong. When an in-state resident buys something online and doesn’t pay because the company isn’t obligated to collect the tax, those residents are legally responsible to pay the equivalent of the sales tax.

In these cases it is called a “use” tax (because they use the purchased product in their state) and everybody is supposed to report it on their state tax return. Unfortunately, the vast majority of taxpayers ignore this obligation. The simplest answer is to have the Internet seller collect the tax just as the local retail store does.

Online purchases now make up close to 10% of all retail sales and that percentage is steadily climbing.

This is a growing problem across the country, but especially for states like Indiana that are heavily dependent on sales tax – which accounts for 46% of Indiana’s total tax revenues. States are losing an estimated $11 billion in uncollected sales tax each year. Indiana’s losses are put at $200 million annually, and these numbers are growing by nearly 10% each year.

No question these numbers are driving up pressure for Congress to take action. The MFA passed the Senate in 2013, but it got bogged down in the House Judiciary Committee.

Many who are dedicated to the cause have worked to iron out a number of administrative wrinkles and to keep momentum going on this effort. The best speculation is that it will have to be made part of some larger legislative package in order to garner some compromises and the necessary level of support.

Of course, it is impossible to predict, but tax reforms and such tax packages could be on the table after this election year.

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