The Alternative to the Speier-Womack Internet Tax Proposal

by on October 14, 2011 · 7 comments

Reps. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) and Steve Womack (R-Ark.) have introducedThe Marketplace Equity Act,” which would open the floodgates to anything-goes State-based taxation of the Internet and interstate commerce. The bill essentially sacrifices constitutional fairness at the alter of “tax fairness.” Building on concerns raised by state and local officials as well as “bricks-and-mortar” retailers, Speier and Womack claim that, as “a matter of states’ rights” and “leveling the playing field,” Congress should bless state efforts to impose sales tax collection obligation on interstate (“remote”) companies.The measure would allow States to do so using one of three rate structures: (1) a single blended state/local rate; (2) a single maximum State rate; or (3) the actual local jurisdiction destination rate + the State rate (so long as the State “make(s) available adequate software to remote sellers that substantially eases the burden of collecting at multiple rates within the State.”)

This builds on a long-standing effort by some States to devise a multistate sales tax compact to collude and impose taxes on interstate transactions. In the Senate, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) has floated legislation (“The Main Street Fairness Act”) that would bless such a state-based de facto national sales tax regime for the Internet.

There is a better way to achieve fairness without sacrificing tax competition or opening the doors to unjust, unconstitutional, and burdensome state-based taxation of interstate sales. In a new Mercatus Center essay,”The Internet, Sales Taxes, and Tax Competition,” Veronique de Rugy and I argue that:

Apart from getting chronic state overspending under control, a better solution to the states’ fiscal problems than a tax cartel that imposes burdensome tax collection obligations on outof-state vendors would be tax competition.  Congress should adopt an “origin-based” sourcing rule for any states seeking to impose sales tax collection obligations on interstate vendors. This rule would be in line with Constitutional protections for interstate commerce, allow for the continued growth of the digital economy, and ensure excessive, inefficient taxes do not burden companies and consumers.

Vero and I have detailed this alternative plan in much greater detail in this 2003 Cato white paper, “The Internet Tax Solution: Tax Competition, Not Tax Collusion.” As we explain in our new paper:

In this system, states would tax all sales inside their borders equally, regardless of the buyer’s residence or the ultimate location of consumption. Under that model, all sales would be “sourced” to the seller’s principal place of business and taxed accordingly. This is, after all, how sales taxes have traditionally worked. A Washington, DC, resident who buys a television in Virginia, for instance, is taxed at the origin of sale in Virginia regardless of whether he brings the television back into the District. Each day in America, there are millions of cross-border transactions that are taxed only at the origin of the sale; no questions are asked about where the buyer will consume the good. Policy makers should extend the same principle to crossborder sales involving mail order and the Internet. Under this approach, Internet shoppers would pay the sales tax of the state where the online retailer is based.

An origin-based sourcing rule has several advantages over the destination-based system States favor.

  1. It would eliminate constitutional concerns because only companies within a state or local government’s borders would be taxed.
  2. An origin-based system would do away with the need for prohibitively complex multistate collection arrangements because states
    would tax transactions at the source, not at the final point of consumption.
  3. An origin-based system also would protect buyers’ privacy rights, eliminating the need to collect any special or unique information about a buyer and to use third-party tax collectors to gather such information.
  4. It would also preserve local jurisdictional tax authority whereas a harmonization proposal would create a de facto national sales tax system that would exclude local governments.
  5. Finally, because it is more politically and constitutionally feasible, an origin tax may actually maximize the amount of tax
    collected for states by making compliance easier and incorporating currently untaxed activities.

In closing, it is important to address the misguided claim at the heart of the Speier-Womack bill that this is a “states’ rights” issue. Let’s be clear what real federalism is all about. Federalism is not about “states’ rights.” States have powers and responsibilities, and under the Constitution — at least the proper interpretation of it — they have wide-ranging flexibility to purse different governance approaches. But that power is not unlimited. America abandoned its first constitution, The Articles of Confedertion, after just 14 years in part because untrammeled state authority was discouraging interstate trade and commerce. In their wisdom, the authors or our present Constitution made sure to include Article 1, Sec. 8, Clause 3 — the so-called “Commerce Clause” — which created and protected what might best be thought of as the world’s first free trade zone – The United States of America. It remains one of the greatest achievements in constitutional and commercial history.

Thus, properly understood, federalism is about a healthy tension among competing units of government. Each has a different role and set of responsibilities, and this tension bolsters the checks and balances at the heart of our constitutional republic. [I outline all this in far more detail my 1999 book, The Delicate Balance: Federalism, Interstate Commerce and Economic Freedom in the Technological Age.]

In the context of Internet tax policy, this means that the tax power of the States can be legitimately constrained by the federal government to ensure that the interstate market is not unduly burdened with unjust levies. States certainly retain the power to impose whatever levies they wish on those actors who have a substantial physical presence in their geographic confines. That is, they can tax their own exports. Taxing imports from another State, however, is an entirely different matter, and one the necessarily requires some degree of federal oversight to ensure America’s free trade zone is preserved and protected.

An origin-based sourcing rule accomplishes that goal while also leaving States the discretion to impose taxes on their own exports if they so choose. The fact that this system would lead to heated tax competition among the States is a feature, not a bug.

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