Proposed USPS legislation is no panacea.

With all of the horrid financial news coming out of the United States Postal Service in recent months and years, we’ve been waiting to see what sort of congressional legislation would be proposed to alleviate its problems.

The wait is now over, with the announcement of a legislative proposal called the Postal Operations Sustainment & Transformation Act of 2010. (P.O.S.T. – get it?)

This legislation attempts to fix the USPS’s precarious financial condition with a bevy of provisions such as easing employee pension and retiree health costs, making it easier for the USPS to close redundant or underperforming branch offices and, most dramatically, eliminating Saturday mail delivery altogether.

It’s no wonder the proposed legislation seeks to cut back on operating costs, because the volume of mail the USPS processes has dropped by ~20% just since 2006. And the prediction is for a further decline of ~20 billion pieces of mail that will be handled in the coming decade.

Sen. Thomas Carper, who introduced the bill, had this to say about the proposed legislation: “… If we act quickly, we can turn things around by passing this necessary bill that would give the Postal Service the room it needs to manage itself …”

That sounds nice and tidy. But does it really solve the USPS’s financial and structural problems?

If enacted, the new provisions in this legislation are expected to save the Postal Service somewhere north of $3 billion per year. But only a couple days following news of the legislative bill comes word that the USPS lost $1.6 billion in the month of August alone.

In fact, for the first 11 months of its fiscal year, the Postal Service’s losses have totaled nearly $8 billion. USPS losses are significantly higher than last year at this time (~$6.3 billion by comparison) – and that’s even while experiencing an increase in mail volume of ~1.8% year over year.

In this context, it seems pretty evident that the pending legislation will not come close to remedying the USPS’s financial situation – even as it enables the most sweeping cuts in operating activities that have ever been seen. Unfortunately, a classic case of “too little, too late.”

The Postal Service’s own Office of Inspector General has released a report claiming that the USPS could be financially sustainable at the lower mail volume levels projected … if it could raise prices above the inflation rate. But such an action could tip the whole enterprise into a “death spiral” where the price hikes drive away customers. A reminder to everyone involved: Mailing service is no longer a monopoly in this country.

This problem is by no means solved.

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.