Another Win for the Tax Man?

The threat of collecting sales taxes for Internet-based commerce has been rumbling in the background for years. But the latest news out of Washington may mean it’s finally coming to pass. And it’s generating its share of controversy.

A bill is expected to be introduced soon in Congress that would force Amazon, Overstock and other Internet retailers to collect sales taxes from their customers who shop online or through mail order. Co-sponsored by a Republican senator and a Democratic congressperson – which means almost certain passage – the bill would require states to inform retailers whenever there is a change in their tax code. This will have the effect of simplifying the tax collection and data reconciliation process.

State officials are understandably excited over the prospects of gaining additional sales tax revenue. And why wouldn’t they be? After all, sales tax receipts have dropped off in recent months due to a general decrease in retail activity. To them, this seems like a quick and easy way to replenish their coffers.

Plus, some brick-and-mortar retailers are surely happy about having a more level playing field. No longer will they have to compete at a disadvantage against online retailers that are saving their customers 6% or 7% sales tax on every purchase.

Of course, sales tax regulations have long been a thicket of complexity. In fact, a tidy number of sales tax collection software/service companies have sprung up over the years to help retailers make sense of it all. Not only are a myriad of different sales taxes set by individual states, but cities and other municipal entities within states can also set their own sales taxes as well.

To add even more to the potential confusion, each state has its own individual laws regarding what type of merchandise is taxable, or whether things like shipping expenses are taxable. So collecting the correct figure is often a tricky business, even for large online retailers.

As for sellers having multiple physical locations in addition to their online presence, depending on where those business locations are in relation to the online consumer’s place of residence can make for an even more complicated picture.

Are we having fun yet?

It’s no wonder online retailers intensely dislike playing the role of tax collector for the states. On the other hand, government officials absolutely love the idea that they can collect new funds without actually having to raise taxes.

And that’s what’s so interesting about this latest maneuver. No one is talking about an official change in tax law. Technically, online shoppers have always been required to keep their receipts and pay tax funds to their home state when filing the yearly state tax return. But be honest … do you know anyone who’s actually ever done that?

UPDATE (4/28/09): BusinessWeek is reporting that the particulars of the legislative bill are still being drafted. Of course, this isn’t the first time movement on a bill has been delayed in Congress. The magazine is also reporting that the bill’s passage is not a foregone conclusion … although opposition in this Congress appears to be lower than in previous ones. We shall see.

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