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Will online sales tax bill spur or stifle competition?

Kenneth Corbin | May 8, 2013
Strong bipartisan support sends controversial Marketplace Fairness Act to the House, as opponents continue to raise concerns about impact on small businesses.

But the bill has plenty of critics, including Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who called it a "coercive affront to state sovereignty" for giving states the authority to impose their sales tax rules on out-of-state businesses. Wyden and several other members representing states with no sales tax voted against the measure.

In addition to the states-rights issue, opponents of the bill, including eBay and several trade groups and advocacy organizations, warned that it would have a detrimental impact on small businesses who would be saddled with a major accounting burden for having to navigate a patchwork of state and local tax codes.

"With this proposal," Wyden said, "I fear that what we're going to do is crush a lot of those startups."

The bill's authors acknowledged those concerns, and included a provision that would exempt small businesses with less than $1 million in annual remote sales. It would also require states that want to invoke the tax-collection requirement to simplify their tax codes, either by signing onto interstate Streamlined Sales and Use Tax Agreement or by taking other measures to reduce complexity, including the establishment of a single entity in the state to oversee sales-tax administration and developing a uniform sales and use tax return.

Participating states would also be required to distribute free software to affected retailers to help with the calculation of the taxes.

But those simplification measures are insufficient protections for small businesses, according to Nita Ghei, a policy research editor with George Mason University's Mercatus Center.

Big Hit on Small Retailers

"As the Internet sales tax kicks in, it functions as a barrier to growth. The tax, in effect, limits competition for the existing big retailers, who can spread the cost of compliance over a larger sales base," Ghei adds, arguing that the purported benefit to big retailers explains why Amazon threw its lot in with WalMart and other large enterprises in support of the bill.

eBay, a staunch opponent of the Marketplace Fairness Act, had proposed setting the threshold for the small-seller exemption at $10 million, while also excluding those with fewer than 50 employees.

The bill now heads to the House, where Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) has said that he remains concerned by several provisions in the legislation and plans to take a hard look at the measure before voting it out of his committee.


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