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Reason Foundation

About that Online Sales Tax 'Loophole'

Steven Titch
July 23, 2012, 3:30pm

Proponents of higher taxes have taken to calling the exemption that out-of-state online shoppers enjoy a "loophole," as if it were an unintended flaw in two established court rulings that addressed the power of one state to tax residents of another.

My latest commentary at Reason.org looks at the so-called Marketplace Fairness Act, a bill that the House Judiciary Committee has scheduled for hearings tomorrow. The bill aims to help states collect sales taxes on out-of-state purchases, typically made via catalogue or, to an ever-greater extent, the Internet. Two Supreme Court decisions, Quill vs. North Dakota and National Bellas Hess vs. [Illinois] Department of Revenue, both of which pre-date Internet shopping, protect out-of-state consumers from the taxman's reach.

As I write:

Editorials and op-eds supporting the bill, such as in the Arizone Daily Star and the Chicago Sun-Times, say it will close a "loophole" that allows Internet purchases to escape taxation.  This is akin to saying the Supreme Court's Miranda decision is a loophole for defendants to escape prosecution. No doubt some overzealous prosecutors may think so, but in truth, Miranda sharpened and affirmed the right of due process already present in the Fourth and Fifth Amendments. Likewise, in Quill and Bellas Haas, the courts sharpened and affirmed the Constitution's commerce clause that prevents one state from taxing residents of another.

Seeing it as counterproductive to an interdependent economy, the Founders did not want states plundering each other's residents and enterprises with taxes. Yet that's exactly the environment the Marketplace Fairness Act sets up. New York State can tax residents of Illinois and the Prairie State can tax Hoosiers.

In doing so, the Marketplace Fairness Act ignores the constitutional underpinnings of the Quill and Bellas Hess decisions and treats the Internet sales tax issue as a procedural issue when the in fact the constitutional bar is set much higher. The giveaway, however, is the portion of the bill that requires states to simplify their state tax collection procedures before launching cross-border taxation. It's an unusual quid pro quo, perhaps because Congress has to offer states the prerequisite of a buy-in. That's because any attempt to impose a tax collection structure wholesale on the states would likely face a constitutional challenge on 10th Amendment grounds of state's rights.

In reality, the states, struggling as they are with debt crises of their own making, are angling for a greater piece of the $200 billion Americans are spending with Internet merchants each year. Of course, not all of this goes untaxed; on-line retailers who have brick-and-mortar stores within a state must collect tax from residents in that state. Besides creating a mess of competing state tax grabs, this law stands to increase paperwork and complexity for thousands of small online businesses and catalogue firms, who would now be obliged to calculate taxes on some 11,000 sales tax jurisdictions throughout the country. Whether or not it's "simplified" in line with some Congressional definition, it still stands to be the burden as noted in Quill and Bellas Hess.  

But all the talk of loopholes, level playing fields and what does or does not constitute a "burden" diverts attention from the real issue. The Marketplace Fairness Act is not about the Internet, e-commerce, the marketplace or fairness--it's about what the Constitution says about the power of state governments to tax citizens beyond their borders.



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