Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Is state sales tax on interstate commerce allowed?

Did you know that individual States cannot tax interstate commerce, as a general rule? There are some very specific exceptions, and California (and other States) have been trying to exploit extremely loose interpretations of those exceptions. Interstate commerce is any transaction, transit or business that is conducted across State borders. This includes mail order, Internet, and physically going to another State to purchase an item to bring back to your home State. Many States have taxes on their books that attempt to circumvent this law. Recently, States have been trying to exploit what they think is a loophole in the Quill Corp. v. North Dakota (91-0194), 504 U.S. 298 (1992) (backup link) Supreme Court ruling that solidified the limitations on taxation by States. In this ruling, the Supreme Court declares that States may only attempt to levy an interstate commerce tax against businesses that have a presence within their State, known as a substantial nexus. Leave it to judges to come up with a term like that. It basically means a business must have a physical presence within the State in order for its transactions to be taxed by that State. California is now ready to pass a law that will try to specifically impose the collection of taxes from consumers on sales by online retailers, even when the retailer has no physical presence within the State. They are trying to expand on a similar law passed by New York recently. The idea behind the bill is that marketing itself counts as some sort of physical presence. If that doesn’t scare everyone, I don’t know what will. It basically means that anyone with a website that is accessible within California’s territory (i.e., any website on the Internet) is subject to California taxes and law, even if they’ve never set foot in the State. This substantially contradicts the body of Quill v ND, but hey, it’s a taxation party right now! Now, the common mistake is to assume “oh, the States are just strapped for cash and are trying to find ways to soak us dry.” That might be true if politicians actual wrote the bills that become laws. As a general rule, they do not (backup link). You know who does, as a general rule? Corporate lawyers of companies that lobby our legislative bodies. Hmmm, what corporate lawyers would be in favor of raising taxes on businesses? The corporate lawyers that work for companies who would not be substantially hurt by those taxes, but whose competitors would be. Let this excerpt from a recent letter from tell the story.
For well over a decade, the Amazon Associates Program has worked with thousands of California residents. Unfortunately, a potential new law that may be signed by Governor Brown compels us to terminate this program for California-based participants. It specifically imposes the collection of taxes from consumers on sales by online retailers – including but not limited to those referred by California-based marketing affiliates like you – even if those retailers have no physical presence in the state. We oppose this bill because it is unconstitutional and counterproductive. It is supported by big-box retailers, most of which are based outside California, that seek to harm the affiliate advertising programs of their competitors. Similar legislation in other states has led to job and income losses, and little, if any, new tax revenue.
Big-box retailers are companies like Target and Walmart. According to, companies like these seek to protect their businesses by fooling State governments into thinking the State will increase revenue with expanded scope on their sales taxes. Instead, this new tax (like any other tax) has a negative impact on the economy. I’m not against all taxation, but I am against any laws (taxes or otherwise) where one industry attempts to screw over another without providing any new benefit to the consumer. My website is just like any other. It does generate an extremely small amount of income from referrals (upon which I already pay income tax) via affiliate links with Amazon (please see the FTC 16 CRF Part 255 notice in the right column). Now, this law wouldn’t require me to pay any more taxes direclty, but as a customer of Amazon and other online sites, I would be forced to pay sales tax from a law that is probably unconstitutional. Laws that see to “tax the Internet” erode everyone’s rights, and threaten to hold anyone with a website accountable to the individual laws of over six thousand different taxing jurisdictions in America, according the Quill v ND ruling (linked above). Oddly enough, I no longer live in California. But, how long will it be before more States try to pass similar laws? Congress needs to act on this issue soon to prevent this economic nighmare from growing any further. I’m not making this a call to action because each person much act on their own. As such, I am going to be contacting my *new* Congress representitives about this issue very shortly. For additional reading, please see The Problems of State Taxation of Interstate Commerce and Why Congress Should Act (backup link)

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