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Sales tax laws would be essentially meaningless if retailers were not required to collect the tax every time a purchase is made. The opportunities for customers to evade the sales tax (either on accident, or on purpose) would be overwhelming. Every state with a sales tax knows this — and as a result, the vast majority of retailers are legally required to collect and remit sales taxes.
Amazon.com and many other online retailers, however, are the major exception to this broad rule. A 1992 Supreme Court case carved out a special exemption for any “remote sellers” that don’t have a “physical presence” in a state — like a store or warehouse. The ruling has allowed the Internet to become an open highway for tax evasion. While customers shopping online owe the same sales tax they would if they shopped in a store, very few actually take the time and effort necessary to pay that tax.
This week, four states (California, Louisiana, Texas, and Vermont) made headlines for their attempts to limit the amount of sales tax evasion occurring through “remote sellers,” while a fifth state (Illinois) will soon have to defend its efforts to do the same in court. By contrast, South Carolina lawmakers were recently bullied into granting Amazon an exemption from having to collect sales taxes for five years, despite the fact that it will soon have a “physical presence” in the state.
In Vermont, Governor Shumlin recently signed a so-called “Amazon law” that will eventually require all remote sellers partnered with affiliate companies physically based in the state to collect and remit sales taxes (see this ITEP report for more on “Amazon laws”). Unfortunately, the bill was written so that it won’t take effect until 15 other states have enacted similar laws.
Six states — Arkansas, Connecticut, Illinois, New York, North Carolina, and Rhode Island — have enacted such laws so far, and many more have given the issue serious consideration. In the meantime, remote sellers like Amazon will be required to notify Vermont residents of the taxes they owe when making a purchase.
The California Assembly easily passed an Amazon law last week. That legislation now goes back to the Senate, where a similar bill gained narrow passage last month. Even if the Senate approves the Assembly’s version of the bill, however, it’s unclear whether Governor Brown will sign the measure.
Louisiana can now be added to the long list of states giving serious consideration to enacting an Amazon law. The House Ways and Means Committee unanimously passed such a law in late-May, though opposition by Gov. Jindal makes it unlikely that it will be enacted any time soon.
In Texas, Gov. Perry recently vetoed a measure that would have required Amazon.com to collect sales taxes in the state, though the legislature may still try to enact the measure by inserting it into a larger bill that Perry is unlikely to veto.
Unlike the true “Amazon laws” discussed above, the measure in Texas was designed to prevent Amazon from continuing to skirt its sales tax responsibilities by claiming that its Texas distribution center is actually owned by a subsidiary, and therefore does not amount to a “physical presence.” The nearby photo is the actual sign in front of the Texas-based distribution center that Amazon claims it does not own.
In Illinois, the Performance Marketing Association (PMA) has filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the state’s Amazon law. The lawsuit is similar to one being pursued by Amazon against New York State.
And in South Carolina, Amazon.com has demanded, and received, a five year exemption from having to collect sales taxes on purchases made by South Carolinians, despite the fact that it plans to open a distribution center in the state (and will therefore meet the Supreme Court’s definition of having a “physical presence”).
The granting of this exemption represents a stark reversal from just one month ago, when it was soundly defeated 71-47 in the House.
Brian Flynn of the South Carolina Alliance for Main Street Fairness accurately summed up the unfortunate reality of this situation when he said that “with this economy, [Amazon was] in a good position to strong-arm legislators.” Fortunately, the exemption is only supposed to last five years — though judging from Amazon’s past behavior, it’s reasonable to expect that the company will undertake an aggressive campaign to extend that five-year window.