Tuesday, April 21, 2009 - The Progress & Freedom Foundation Blog

Avoiding an Internet Sales Tax Cartel: Why Congress Must Protect Interstate Commerce & Reject the SSTP

There's a movement afoot in Congress to advance legislation that would eviscerate the Commerce Clause of the Constitution, empower a state-based tax cartel, and potentially decimate the Internet economy in the process. Business Week has the details:

In the next week, legislators are expected to introduce bills in the House and Senate promising to do away with the "physical presence" requirement. If a bill passes -- and that's a big "if" -- it would require all online retailers, except for the tiniest companies, to collect sales taxes in the 23 states that are part of the Streamlined Sales Tax Project. The states would compensate the retailers for the trouble, while promising not to sue them for tax collection mistakes that are made.

The Streamlined Sales Tax Project, or "SSTP", sounds good in theory but would be disastrous in practice. Michael Graham of the Boston Herald penned an editorial about the SSTP today and he does a nice job pointing out why, when it comes to "tax simplification," the devil is always in the details and those details are typically anything but "simple" (or taxpayer-friendly for that matter).

The real danger of the SSTP, however, is what it means for the Constitution and tax competition among the states. In this 2003 paper I penned with Veronique de Rugy for the Cato Institute, we showed why the SSTP would not only fail to simplify the sales tax code, but would actually cede dangerous taxing powers to state and local governments over the interstate marketplace. In the process, Veronique and I argued, a multi-state sales tax cartel would be spawned:

Bringing greater uniformity to the current system may have some positive benefits, such as more straightforward tax administration, but it would come at the expense of tax competition between the states and localities. Moreover, when supporters of the [SSTP] argue for greater uniformity in the sales tax system, they may just be making a covert effort to sustain higher tax rates and expand the current system to incorporate remote vendors on interstate goods and services. But at what cost? The states are essentially proposing to abandon true federalism and jurisdictional tax competition in exchange for the power to potentially recoup a small amount of tax revenue from interstate sales through a uniform system of third-party tax collection. Sadly, it appears that state and local officials would prefer to create a cozy tax cartel instead of relying on a "laboratories of democracy" model of competition between the states.

Many analysts have labeled the SSTP proposal "collusive federalism" or "cartel federalism," because it runs counter to America's true federalist structure of government and has very little to do with protecting states' rights. In fact, if a state wants to simplify its sales tax base, it can do so and does not need to reach an agreement with other states. Federalism is about state independence, not state collusion.

That's why Congress should never cede taxing authority over interstate commerce to state or local governments. Of course, the Founders taught us this years ago when the tossed out the Articles of Confederation in favor of our current Constitution. They realized federalism was a two-sided coin, and while the states should be left with broad discretion to craft their own tax policies, that authority must end at the state border. It must so that a free-trade pact among the states can work and interstate commerce can flow freely. The SSTP would sabotage that.

That doesn't mean that there is no way for states to constitutionally tax online sales. As Michael Graham notes, there is an easier solution that would be pro-constitutional and pro-tax competition: An "origin-based" taxing rule:

The fair and obvious solution is to treat every Internet purchase like an ice cream cone on Hampton Beach. The Ben and Jerry's guy there doesn't ask where you're from. For every dollar of ice cream he sells, he collects the same sales tax, period. Why not have Internet retailers do the same? If a business in New Hampshire sells a product, online or at the drive-thru, it always collects the local sales tax. It's fair -- after all, that business and its workers use services the taxes support. And it's easy -- every business already knows how much to collect.

Here's how Aaron Lukas and I described an origin-based taxing system in a 2001 Cato article:
Most people don't realize it, but nothing is stopping states from "leveling the playing field" on sales taxes. Each state has the legal authority to tax all transactions that originate within its borders (i.e., an "origin-based" tax). But no state chooses to tax sales that in-state businesses make to out-of-state buyers. In other words, states purposefully exempt their exports from sales taxes.

So why don't states treat all merchants the same by having them collect the local sales tax regardless of where the buyer lives? When you walk into Wal-Mart, checkout clerks don't ask you where you live; they collect the taxes due where the store is located. We could treat Internet sellers that way. But states fear that a few low- and no-tax rogue states might lure businesses away. Politicians call that a "race to the bottom." But it's really just healthy tax competition.

An origin-based taxing methodology would also have the important added benefit of protecting buyer / taxpayer privacy. There's no need for extensive data-collection and reporting requirements that would have to accompany a destination-based taxing rule, as required under the SSTP.

Federal lawmakers should reject the SSTP proposal as an anti-competitive, unconsitutitonal nightmare for our Republic. If states want to "simplify" their sales tax codes, then by all means, go for it. But there is no need for Congress to grant them power to extend those taxes outside their borders or, worse yet, do it in unison with other tax officials as part of an interstate tax cartel. Tax competition must trump tax collusion.

posted by Adam Thierer @ 5:11 PM | Taxes