Jul
07
2011

Amazon, Tennesee, Bill Haslam, and a national sales tax.

(Full disclosure: I am an Amazon.com Affiliate for Maryland.)

Glenn Reynolds noted this apparent contradiction in what Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam’s position actually is with regard to having Amazon.com collect sales tax: is the Republican Governor for it, or against it?  I say ‘apparent’ because there isn’t one, really; there’s just not enough context.

Basically, the position that Haslam is taking is that the state of Tennessee trying to impose an Amazon tax would probably wreck ongoing negotiations between the state and Amazon.com when it comes to getting a couple more job-creating distribution centers built in-state (which it probably will).  Haslam also thinks that a national, standardized system for sales tax is both necessary and proper:

[Haslam] said Tennessee is already losing between $300 million and $500 million a year on untaxed Internet sales — a growing number since the states and Congress have been unable for more than a decade to agree on a “streamlined sales tax” process enabling online retailers to collect taxes easily for the nation’s thousands of state and local taxing jurisdictions.

“It’s not going to begin eroding the state’s tax base; it already is. Something has to happen nationally. The whole streamlined sales tax is a big deal, and I’m more than willing to play a leadership role,” Haslam said. “It has to be addressed on a national level or we’re going to keep playing these kinds of move-around games.”

What Haslam is clearly referring to here is the Streamlined State Tax Initiative (SSTI), which is pretty much as advertised: it’s a drive to get the federal government to create an unified, (and hopefully uncomplicated) sales tax standard.  Haslam supports such an initiative… and guess what?  So does Amazon.com.  CEO Jeff Bezos has made it clear that his company endorses the SSTI, and that the company has done so for years.  What Amazon objects to is the notion of doing it piecemeal: whether you think that this is due to legitimate constitutional concerns, or merely an unwillingness to build over fifty different set of taxation guidelines* into the software, is of course your privilege.

The point is that Haslam – and Amazon.com – are both taking a position that is a bit too nuanced for the rather simplistic, rather Manichean worldview being promulgated by the unlikely alliance of Democratic-controlled legislatures**/big-box brick-and-mortar retailers like Wal-Mart***.  There are a couple of obvious reasons why conservatives may be legitimately concerned with increasing the power of the federal government with regard to this issue, or indeed any issue involving taxation… but it’s still an internally consistent position to take.

Moe Lane (crosspost)

*All subject to change without notice.

**Which are mostly desperate to find enough money to keep paying into the sweetheart deals that they made with Big Labor.

***Which are mostly not happy that somebody is doing to them what they did to the smaller brick-and-mortar retailers.

8 Comments

  • qixlqatl says:

    I’m not gonna waste any sympathy on the big-box stores. All they do (to drastically oversimplify) is give you the least amount of overpricing on the junk they sell…

  • Rob Crawford says:

    Actually, retailers wish there were only fifty sales taxes. Cities, counties, states, all with different levels of taxes on different items.

  • Roland Worth says:

    By definition the bulk of Amazon sales are INTERstate. Therefore there should be one, flat federal sales taxes on ALL such sales, PREEMPTING any and all state taxes except for when Amazon has physical resources in the state. (Perhaps not even that exception!)

    Let the Feds give a flat % of what they get to the states with a proviso that this fully and completely replaces any “use tax” owed by individual taxpayers and with the remainder going to whatever useful Federal purpose deemed most important. Reducing the debt? A solely dedicated fund for Medicare or some other useful / needed purpose?

    Whatever–this would preempt the states with the comeuppance they fully deserve.

  • John says:

    The thing that tends to bother me is that the politicians frame this as a tax on Amazon, that Amazon is “cheating” the system. Amazon is doing no such thing. All current law states is that Amazon is not required to collect the tax the the citizen of the state owes. The person who made the purchase still owes the tax, and are cheating the government by not paying it. If the politicians were honest, they would admit that their constituents were a bunch of tax cheats, and crack down on them accordingly. Instead, they try to make big business the “evil” aggressor, not paying the money it owes to the state.

  • Demosthenes says:

    Roland’s idea both terrifies and intrigues me. As for John’s point, he’s absolutely right…but it is both easier and more politically sound to crack down on the ONE major Internet retailer than it is to go after the THOUSANDS of its customers in your district. (I would like to point out, as a partial counterpoint, that these Amazon taxes seem to be pushed largely by Democrats, and largely in very blue areas. Why wouldn’t they blame Amazon instead of their constituents? Isn’t their whole political outlook based on the idea that the people who elect them are fundamentally incapable of taking care of themselves?)

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