TOPICS > Economy

Congress Seeks to Eliminate Perk of Online Shopping by Requiring Sales Tax

April 29, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Proposed legislation in Congress could require consumers to pay sales tax for online purchases. Currently, states can only collect taxes from businesses that have a physical presence in their state. Gwen Ifill looks at the stakes and debate with Brian Bieron of eBay and the National Retail Federation's Rachelle Bernstein.
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GWEN IFILL: Since the earliest days of the Web, buying goods online has often come with one often-not-quite-legal perk: no sales tax. But that may be about to change.

The Senate has cleared the way for a new law that would allow states to collect taxes on transactions conducted across state lines. The bill exempts businesses earning less than a million dollars a year. As it stands now, states can only collect taxes from businesses that have a physical presence in their state.

We look at what’s at stake in Congress and the debate surrounding the change with Brian Bieron, senior director of global public policy for eBay, which has actively opposed the legislation, and Rachelle Bernstein, a vice president at the National Retail Federation, which supports the bill.

Rachelle Bernstein, let’s start with the basics. What percentage of goods, would you say, of sales are made online at this point?

RACHELLE BERNSTEIN, National Retail Federation: You know, it’s a growing percentage. It’s not that large. I don’t have that exact number, but we do know it has really grown exponentially over time.

And we do know that that number is supposed to double in the next six years. So, if we look sales tax base of the states, it will be greatly eroded if something is not done to even out the tax burden on goods that are purchased from out of state, as well as in state.

GWEN IFILL: So, we’re talking basically a difference between way the brick and mortar salespeople, people who actually have a building and a front door and a cash register, and people like you at eBay who look at this and everything exists online.

BRIAN BIERON, eBay: Well, eBay is a marketplace on the Internet actually for all size and all kinds of retailers.

We have thousands and really tens of thousands of entrepreneurs and small businesses who use the Internet on eBay and in other ways. But many of them also actually have physical storefronts and they have physical presence through warehouse.

Really, the thing to think about is that while the Internet right now is around six percent of retail, so it’s not an overwhelming amount, that this bill really treats small businesses in a much more negative way than it treats really giant businesses.

GWEN IFILL: How?

BRIAN BIERON: Well, the giant businesses today, because they tend to be in more places, the current law essentially requires them to collect and live under the laws of a large number of states.

Smaller businesses, many of whom are using the Internet, but also let’s say might also be in storefronts, no matter how they sell things, they are only required to collect for one state and to essentially be audited or live under the enforcement of just one state’s tax collectors.

To take any business when they are really small who today is living under the laws of one state and would ask them to live under the same set of laws that giant businesses, billion-dollar businesses with armies of accountants and tax lawyers, treating them exactly the same we think would be unfair.

We think that it’s not that we oppose the idea. We think that these bills should be rejected right now because they are not balanced and they don’t treat the small businesses in the right way.

GWEN IFILL: Rachelle Bernstein?

RACHELLE BERNSTEIN: Well, I understand what Brian is saying.

But we have small members that are really the mom and pops in the community, the people that are paying property taxes, employing people there, and they face a lot of competition from the Internet sellers.

And what this …

GWEN IFILL: Give me an example of that.

RACHELLE BERNSTEIN: Well, we have — one of our members in Baltimore owns a running shoe store, and it’s just one store.

He has a very wide selection of different types of shoes so that you can go in and you can try everything on and figure out exactly which shoes you want. Running shoes are a little bit expensive. People go in there. They will find exactly what they want, maybe — maybe order two pairs. They will be as bold as to in that store pull out their telephone and order those shoes online after they have identified what they need.

GWEN IFILL: To save the taxes?

RACHELLE BERNSTEIN: To save the taxes.

This man can’t compete with that, this owner of the store. So, we have got a real problem here. And I hear what Brian is saying in terms of the burdens of collecting taxes from a state that you are not in. But the legislation said that is — the Senate is about to pass includes — requires the states that want to collect these taxes to provide software to the remote sellers that will calculate the tax, collect the tax, and remit it to the states on behalf of those sellers.

GWEN IFILL: You just made an important point. The Senate is about to pass it.

RACHELLE BERNSTEIN: Right.

GWEN IFILL: I said clear the way, but the Senate committee has cleared the way, so it will go to the full Senate and then to the House.

I want to ask you about that, Brian Bieron. Why shouldn’t everybody pay the taxes?

BRIAN BIERON: Well, first of all, states all today have the right to require whether it’s the businesses in their to collect or the consumers in their states to pay. States have authority to collect their taxes.

And in fact, the Internet doesn’t change that.

GWEN IFILL: They have the authority, but it involves individuals going back and saying, oh, this is how much I think I spent on eBay last year.

BRIAN BIERON: But the fact is they’re — when you’re shopping on eBay, you are shopping with actual retailers.

Now, on eBay, they are usually very small businesses. But if you buy on the Internet from a business that is in your state, the sales tax is collected. This is about requiring businesses that are far away from a state to live under that state’s laws, which Rachelle mentioned software.

If software was all it took to comply with taxes, then giant multibillion-dollar businesses wouldn’t have large teams of accountants and teams of tax lawyers to do their tax compliance, because they would replace all that with just software. The reality is that it’s a lot more than software.

And the current bill would mean that any small business over a very tiny size who were using the Internet to sell could be audited and face tax enforcement in the tax courts of businesses thousands — I mean, states thousands of miles away.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let’s talk about the states, Rachelle Bernstein.

Do — how much — we have any way of knowing or measuring how much money states are losing by people who buy across state lines and don’t pay that tax?

RACHELLE BERNSTEIN: The National Council of State Legislatures said that the number is $23 billion dollars this year.

So, yes, that is — that’s a lot of money. The states are — right now are hurting for funds. This would help them not have to pass new taxes to be able to collect the money that is needed. The other thing is that, again, as — as the growth of the Internet goes on, if this situation isn’t corrected, either state sales taxes are going to have to rise or states are going to have to look to other sources of revenue, increasing income taxes, whatever, to be able to collect the revenue that they are relying on.

GWEN IFILL: The bill calls for that million-dollar cutoff. You are saying it should be higher.

BRIAN BIERON: We’re saying it should be higher. We believe that a number more like $10 million dollars, which has been proposed in a bipartisan way — for example, the Department of Treasury Office of Tax Analysis, they recommend $10 million dollars.

GWEN IFILL: It’s not a big business at $10 million dollars?

BRIAN BIERON: Oh, no, it’s — well, their — they recommend, the Department of Treasury today has a proposal that $10 million dollars would be the number that they would use to measure the difference between small businesses and big businesses — businesses for tax bills across the board.

Chairman Dave Camp of the House Ways and Means Committee, the lead tax writer on the House side of the Hill, has said that $10 million dollars is a standard for him for deciding where a small business becomes like a midsized business.

GWEN IFILL: I have a very brief final question for you both, which is we know what the debate about taxes is like on Congress — on the Hill, on Capitol Hill. Why isn’t this just a tax increase, pure and simple?

RACHELLE BERNSTEIN: Well, it’s not a tax increase because this tax is already due and owing. It’s just, as you said before; it’s up to the consumer right now to remit it.

But, if I could just make one comment …

GWEN IFILL: We really …

RACHELLE BERNSTEIN: … 99 percent of Internet sellers have less than $1 million dollars of sales.

GWEN IFILL: Very brief response.

BRIAN BIERON: Well, we think that the most balanced answer is to raise that small business number to a realistic level where you balance the interest of the states with revenue and you also keep the Internet open for small business.

GWEN IFILL: Brian Bieron of eBay and Rachelle Bernstein of the National Retail Federation, thank you both very much.

BRIAN BIERON: Thank you very much.