nosalestax.jpgBy Phil Mattera, Dirt Diggers Digest

When large companies complain about taxes, they are usually talking about levies they have to pay out of their own deep pockets. Amazon.com is engaged in a battle to make it easier for its customers to avoid paying their taxes -- their sales tax, that is, on what they purchase from the giant online retailer.

The outcome of this dispute will have broad consequences for a U.S. economy in which state and local governments face ongoing revenue shortfalls and commerce increasingly takes place online.

At the center of the dispute is the question of whether web-based retailers such as Amazon have the same obligation as brick-and-mortar stores to collect sales tax from their customers. Sales taxes are essential to the finances of state governments, accounting for nearly half of all their tax revenue. Widespread corporate income tax dodging and business property tax breaks have made the sales levy all the more important.

While traditional retailers have no choice about collecting the sales tax mandated by state and local authorities, the story is more complicated when it comes to e-commerce. A 1992 U.S. Supreme Court opinion barred states from requiring catalogue and internet sellers to collect sales tax unless they had a physical presence ("nexus" in legalese) such as a distribution center in the customer's state. The argument was that forcing merchants to keep track of varying tax rates across thousands of jurisdictions was too onerous.

That ruling, which was handed down before Amazon.com was founded, did not mean that online transactions were tax-free. Many states require residents to voluntarily report their online purchases and pay taxes directly to the government. Most people are unaware of these rules or choose to ignore them. The failure of online retailers to collect taxes thus results in revenue losses that a University of Tennessee study estimates will reach $11 billion next year.

The Supreme Court hinted that a solution to the problem should come in the form of federal legislation sanctioning sales tax collection on remote transactions along with efforts by the states to streamline and simplify their sales tax practices. Progress on these fronts has been slow.

As people spend more and more of their money in cyberspace, some states feel they cannot wait. They have been devising creative ways to establish nexus. New York led the way in 2008 with legislation, dubbed the "Amazon law," that requires online retailers to collect taxes if they have affiliate websites in the state promoting sales on their behalf. A few other states followed suit in 2009 and 2010.

This year the issue has mushroomed. More than a dozen state legislatures have taken up the matter, and Amazon laws have been enacted in Illinois, Connecticut and California. Amazon is furious. It responds to the new laws by vowing to terminate its relationship with affiliates in the affected states and by threatening legal action.

The company's aversion to sales tax collection is so strong that it carries over into states in which it should have a nexus obligation. As Michael Mazerov of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities points out, Amazon has put ownership of its physical facilities in the hands of subsidiaries and then claimed there was no basis for the parent company to collect taxes. When that has not worked, the company has sought special exemptions by what amounts to bribing the state with promises of job creation. Such an effort just failed in Texas, but Amazon prevailed in a drawn-out dispute in South Carolina.

In early June, South Carolina legislators reversed themselves and approved a bill that gives Amazon a five-year exemption from its sales tax collection duties. The move came after the company upped to 2,000 the number of jobs it promised to create in the state in the course of building a $125 million distribution center. Amazon had also been offered subsidies such as income tax credits and property tax breaks, but it is significant that the sales tax collection issue was the deal breaker for the company.

Despite all evidence to the contrary, Amazon claims that its opposition to collecting sales tax is not driven by a desire to gain a price advantage over its competitors. Instead, the company insists that collecting sales tax in every state would be excessively burdensome.

It would be one thing for that claim to be made by a mom-and-pop operation. But this is Amazon -- the online service that not only sells its customers a vast array of merchandise but also anticipates what they may want to purchase by offering an endless stream of targeted recommendations and by listing what customers who bought a particular item also purchased.

A company that has the computing power to predict the consuming habits of each of its tens of millions of customers could easily handle a few thousand different sales tax rates.

At stake are not only Amazon's convenience and state revenue loss. By taking a hard line on sales tax collection, Amazon is contributing to the anti-tax sentiment that is doing so much harm to the country. Everyone likes a bargain, but it should not come at the expense of revenues needed to sustain vital public services.