Amazon taxes: Good for states, and taxpayers, too

States are slowly enacting laws that would require online vendors to collect state and local taxes,  with mixed success. But the shift will benefit everyone and make tax laws fair.

Mark Lennihan/AP/File
The logo for is displayed at a fall news conference in New York in this file photo. Williams argues that laws requiring online vendors like Amazon to collect local and state taxes will make tax filing easier for everyone.

I’ve finally finished my income tax returns for 2011. The last task—and least pleasant—is figuring my Virginia use tax. That’s the sales tax I owe on our many out-of-state web purchases. It’s a pain to plow through 12 months of receipts to identify untaxed transactions but I do it every year, stubbornly—some say foolishly—insisting on paying what I owe.

But in a couple of years, Amazon will ease my task when it starts collecting Virginia sales tax on things I buy. I can hardly wait.

All 45 states that impose sales taxes also have use taxes that apply to all taxable purchases on which buyers paid no sales tax. Relatively few taxpayers know about use taxes, much less pay them, and most states exert little effort to collect them.

Nearly half of taxing states include a section on their income tax returns where filers can pay use tax. In those states, less than 2 percent of taxpayers ante up, at least in part because paying requires figuring out how much you owe. Nine states simplify the process by providing look-up tables of acceptable amounts based on income. About 3 percent of filers in those states pay the tax, compared with about half a percent of those in other states that collect the levy on income tax returns (which includes Virginia). States with separate collection mechanisms undoubtedly see even less compliance. And most states don’t seem to try very hard to make consumers pay.

States have worried for years about losing revenues as retail sales have moved from in-state bricks-and-mortar stores to on-line firms that rarely collect state sales taxes. The Supreme Court ruled a few decades back that a state cannot force sellers to collect sales tax unless the seller has a commercial presence in the state. That ruling effectively exempts many e-tailers from having to collect sales tax.

But states have recently tried to force some big sellers like Amazon to charge state and local taxes with mixed success. Some, like New York, enact “Amazon laws” that assert that companies with in-state affiliates must collect sales tax, even if the companies themselves have no physical presence in the state. That worked for New York and a few other states: Amazon currently collects sales tax on purchasers who live in Kansas, Kentucky, New York, North Dakota, or Washington (where Amazon’s headquarters give it physical presence).

But the tactic failed elsewhere. Amazon pulled its affiliates in Arkansas, Connecticut, Illinois, Rhode Island, and Texas after those states enacted Amazon laws.

At least five states have cut deals with Amazon, deferring required tax collection in exchange for not legislating such a requirement. For example, Amazon will start collecting tax on sales to Virginians starting in September 2013. California, Indiana, South Carolina, and Texas will join that list over the next two years.

Congress could short circuit this piecemeal process and require e-tailers to collect state and local sales taxes, as Howard Gleckman noted last fall. The Streamlined Sales and Use Tax Agreement (SSUTA), onto which at least 24 states have signed, simplifies sales tax rules in order to make it easier for out-of-state sellers to collect sales taxes on sales to non-residents. The Main Street Fairness Act, introduced last year in Congress, would authorize states to implement SSUTA with restrictions. But congressional efforts have gone nowhere so far.

Since most of my untaxed on-line purchases are from Amazon, the company’s agreement with Virginia will cut my use tax calculations substantially—for my 2014 tax return. In the meantime, I can only hope that Congress will give states authority to require all e-tailers to collect the sales taxes we are all supposed to pay.

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