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Yesterday Congress passed a bill, which President Obama is expected to sign, that will ban states from imposing taxes on Internet access. The so-called “Internet Tax Freedom Act” (ITFA) was originally enacted in 1998 as a temporary measure meant to assist an “infant industry.” Now, however, it is being made permanent for exactly the opposite reason: because the Internet is “a resource used daily by Americans of all ages, across our country,” according to Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The bill effectively forces a tax cut onto the states, without any direct cost to the federal government. It’s Congress’ favorite kind of tax cut: one that it does not need to pay for.
The most tangible effect of ITFA will come in 2020 when the seven states that began applying taxes to Internet access prior to 1998—Hawaii, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, Texas, and Wisconsin—will lose their “grandfathered” status and be forced to enact special Internet tax exemptions costing a total of $563 million per year. But Michael Mazerov at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) explains that the impact on existing state taxes may not stop there. According to Mazerov, this sweeping new ban could provide Internet access providers with a legal basis for arguing that all of their purchases, from computer servers to fiber-optic cable and even gasoline, must be exempted from tax in order to avoid any “indirect tax” on Internet access.
For years, permanent enactment of the ITFA had been stopped short by members of Congress who insisted that it be packaged with a measure that could actually improve state sales tax systems: the Marketplace Fairness Act (or similar legislation) that would allow states to require online retailers to collect the sales taxes owed by their customers. Today, enforcement of sales taxes on purchases made over the Internet remains a messy patchwork, with many e-retailers enjoying an inequitable and distortionary price advantage over brick and mortar stores. In order to secure passage of ITFA, Sen. McConnell pledged to hold a vote on the Marketplace Fairness Act later this year—though if history is any guide, that may not mean much. The Senate already passed the Act once, in 2013, before watching it languish in the House.
Regardless of what happens to the Marketplace Fairness Act, the permanent extension of ITFA marks a step backward for state tax policy. ITFA narrows state sales tax bases, makes them less economically neutral, and damages the long-run adequacy and sustainability of state revenues. Limiting states’ ability to apply their consumption taxes in a broad-based way is antithetical to sound tax policy.