Big Bucks At Stake In SCOTUS Sales Tax Case

Big Bucks At Stake In SCOTUS Sales Tax Case

But a case before the Supreme Court could change that.

That sort of discrepancy is at the heart of a multibillion-dollar U.S. Supreme Court case set for argument Tuesday.

Big retailers like Amazon and Walmart collect sales tax on all online sales in the 45 states with a statewide sales tax.

Wayfair, a Boston-based website that sells furnishings, opened two ME call centers in 2016, one in Bangor and one at Brunswick Landing, planning to hire close to 1,000 people.

Small retailers are not collecting state taxes from online shoppers unless the store has a physical presence in the state where the buyer lives.

A ruling for the states would put new pressure on internet retailers and marketplaces that don't always collect taxes - including Overstock.com Inc.

Amazon made a decision to start doing so in ME in April 2017.

This week the Supreme Court is considering a case that could end for good a precedent that allows online retailers to not charge sales tax.

Additionally, independent businesses on websites like Etsy and Ebay would be included in a rewritten sales tax law, as well as third party merchants that operate in Amazon's global marketplace, which totaled almost two-thirds of the company's gross merchandise volume at $313.4 billion.

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"That rule doesn't make sense anymore in today's world of e-commerce", said Deborah White, general counsel of the Retail Litigation Center, which represents the country's largest merchants. The company now charges consumers in every state that imposes a sales tax, but only when selling products that come from its own inventory.

President Donald Trump has slammed the company, accusing it of paying "little or no taxes" to state and local governments. Amazon collects sales tax on its own products, but not on other businesses' products that are sold through its website.

But numerous sales these small retailers get are through bigger sites like Amazon and Walmart.

States generally require consumers who weren't charged sales tax on a purchase to pay it themselves, often through self-reporting on their income tax returns. The court will also rule whether states have the authority to tax all online purchases. Sellers say free or cheap software isn't accurate, more sophisticated software is expensive and that collecting tax nationwide would also subject them to potentially costly audits. Numerous sales on Amazon's and Walmart's sites are actually done by smaller retailers using those sites as their platform.

The case now before the Supreme Court involves South Dakota, which has no income tax and relies heavily on sales tax for revenue.

Broader taxing power would let state and local governments collect an extra $8 billion to $23 billion a year, according to various estimates. The state, conceding it could win only if the Supreme Court reverses course, has lost in lower courts.

South Dakota and its allies say "physical presence" is an increasingly elusive concept in the era of internet storefronts and smartphone apps. Its inaction is why White and other opponents of the physical-presence rule say the court needs to step in. At the time, the court was concerned in part about the burden collecting sales tax would place on the catalog company.

Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the court that the physical-presence requirement, despite its "artificiality", provided a clear standard for applying the dormant commerce clause. But three justices - Neil Gorsuch, Clarence Thomas and Anthony Kennedy - have suggested a willingness to rethink those decisions.

At the time, the court cited state sales tax laws that were too complicated for retailers to know how much to collect unless they had a physical presence in that specific state.

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