Buying an $800 couch or television via the tax-free Internet can be nearly $80 cheaper than a purchase made in a high-sales-tax city like San Francisco -- such a deal. But the free ride is costing states and cities billions of dollars a year, and it damages local businesses that find it hard to compete.
The Main Street Fairness Act, introduced this month by Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.), would end the exemption for big Web retailers like Amazon.com and eBay that fear the change would be a body blow to their business. The Web sales tax issue has been debated and litigated for years, and it is hardly a popular cause, but with state and local governments deeply in debt, the chance to add a massive revenue stream may outweigh the political risks.
The seven-term Delahunt will not be running for re-election, but it would be unfair to see the timing as opportunistic. Delahunt sponsored a similar bill in 2008. I don't enjoy paying taxes any more than the next guy, but Delahunt was right then and he's right now. The Internet is no longer a baby that needs to be cosseted and protected from the real world, and favoring Internet business over brick-and-mortar ones via a tax exemption is not fair.
If you want government services, someone has to pay for them. The amount of money governments are losing due to the exemption is staggering. Uncollected use taxes (a use tax is pretty much the equivalent of a sales tax) for the six-year period ending in 2012 will range from $52 billion to $56 billion nationally, according to a 2009 study by economists at the University of Tennessee. New York City alone will lose at least $390.6 million in 2012; Chicago $229 million, they predict.
That huge black hole hasn't gone unnoticed, and several states (including North Carolina, New York, Colorado, and Rhode Island) are working on a separate track to change the rules. More states are considering similar action. And despite what you may have heard, don't think the 1998 Internet Tax Freedom Act forbids such taxation -- it doesn't. (More on that in a bit.)
On the other side are the big Internet retailers, such as Amazon.com and eBay, which have fought hard to maintain a status quo that gives them a marked advantage over local brick-and-mortar merchants. Amazon.com, the largest and best-known Web retailer, has fought efforts to collect sales tax from customers. The company argues that the crazy quilt of taxing jurisdictions -- there are approximately 8,500 in the United States -- makes doing so impractical.