This week’s U.S. Supreme Court decision regarding sales tax collection on internet purchases sure feels like government finally catching up with the reality of modern commerce.
The aftermath of the decision may show how far government still has to go.
The decision erases the existing law wherein only stores with actual physical locations in a state had to collect sales tax on internet purchases. If the seller had no physical presence in a state, the thinking went, it shouldn’t be obligated to collect sales taxes in the state. (Technically, we were all supposed to be paying that sales tax anyway, but it’s impossible to enforce and almost no Utahns do that.)
There also was a practical aspect to existing law in that some 10,000 different government entities are fed by sales tax in this country, and every community has different rates. To collect the taxes, online retailers have to know all the rates of their customers. Software has made that easier, but at a price that has made it simpler for the giants to adapt. (Amazon started collecting Utah sales tax more than a year ago.) Mom-and-pop Etsy sellers in Utah could take a hit from this.
Speaking of Mom and Pop, those who had been hoping for this decision argue for fairness for Utah businesses. The brick-and-mortar folks don’t just collect sales tax. They pay property taxes and income taxes and employ Utahns who also pay taxes.
But if Mom and Pop think this decision will reverse either the migration to online sales or the ongoing concentration of retail among large players, they will be disappointed. Those fundamentals are ingrained, and Main Street still will be a tough place to do business.
The Utah Legislature still has to act on the court’s decision, and it remains to be seen if this really will be a windfall for Utah governments. Some estimates put the lost revenue at more than $200 million annually, but it’s probably less. Maybe a lot less, given that Amazon had already committed.
In essence, the court has said that sales tax can be based on where the buyer is, not where the seller is. But what does that mean in a world where even groceries can now come via shipping? It’s one thing when we’re talking about sellers from out-of-state, but what happens in state?
Let’s say you live in Morgan County (sales tax rate 5.95 percent) and you buy a $30,000 car from a dealership in Ogden (sales tax rate 7.10 percent). If the dealer “delivers” the car to you in Morgan, do you save $345 on sales tax? And does Morgan get that sales tax revenue, or Ogden?
All of this change is coming against the backdrop of sales tax revenue failing to keep pace. Lifestyle and generational changes appear to be reducing the amount of goods people want to buy. Instead they want more services, which aren’t covered by sales tax. If we really want to put a tax burden on consumption, we’ll need to look at services, too.
It may be better to think of this decision as the genesis of a sales-tax update rather than the update itself. Sales tax needs an overhaul, and it’s going to be a big change.