Finance

The 'Amazon Tax' Battle Escalates

North Carolina is giving its online retailers an ultimatum: collect sales taxes now or risk an audit later.
by | October 20, 2010

The numbers vary but one ballpark figure is $8.6 billion. That's the amount of revenue researchers at the University of Tennessee estimate could flow into state and local government coffers if sales taxes were collected on Internet transactions this year. No wonder the 23 states that have worked to streamline sales and use taxes are pushing federal legislation (introduced in July) that would allow them to require that online retailers collect the tax.

Four states (Colorado, New York, North Carolina and Rhode Island) have struck out on their own and passed various so-called "Amazon taxes" -- laws that make online retailers responsible for sales tax collections if residents in those states run websites that drive business to the retailer. In the past two years, another 13 states have considered Internet tax-collection laws. The legislatures in California and Hawaii passed bills, only to have them vetoed by their governors.

North Carolina -- one of the four with an Amazon tax -- is trying to move the enforcement ball forward with a pro-active program. The Department of Revenue has offered the affected online retailers a path to good tax-collection citizenship: Sign up to collect the tax for the next four years and past failures to do so will be forgiven and forgotten. Don't sign up, and you leave yourself open to an audit.

I asked Beth Stevenson, public information officer for the North Carolina Department of Revenue (DOR), how that approach is working and where the department goes from here. Here's an edited version of our conversation:

When did the program get underway and how many companies have signed on?

The program launched in April 2010. We wanted to partner and cooperate with Internet and e-commerce retailers to resolve their tax liability. The way the program works is that participants can resolve their tax liability by agreeing to collect and remit those taxes for four years starting September 1. If companies elect to participate and sign an agreement, DOR agrees not to assess tax penalties or interest prior to September 1.

We sent information about the program to 450 possible participants. As of the close of the program in September, we have 24 that have agreed to participate.

That doesn't seem like many. Were you disappointed?

Essentially, we hoped to have as much cooperation as possible from retailers. We're pleased with anyone who decided to participate. The goal is to have a cooperative exchange -- to be pro-active in reaching a resolution. We'll take the 24 and move forward.

There's a broader goal here: it is, for DOR, an issue of fairness and equitable collection of taxes.

What about Internet retailers who haven't opted in?

They would be subject to audit and examination by the department. We will prioritize our resources to conduct audits as necessary to get that information. Some retailers are already under examination.

The threat of an audit is not a pleasant one.

I would assume it is not a positive thing for any company, but these companies that did not participate would be subject to all this.

Can they opt in now?

The deadline has expired.

How much revenue is at stake here?

We don't have a projection of revenue from those who have elected to participate. They are just starting to collect the tax. There was a study done by the University of Tennessee, and their research indicates the amount of sales tax the state of North Carolina loses from e-commerce would be $161.8 million this year. The study projects that in 2011 it will be $190 million, and for 2012, $213.8 million.

Have other states tried programs similar to yours?

I don't know any others that have a publicized resolution program like the one we launched in April. There's legislation in New York and Colorado regarding e-commerce, but they have not launched a program like we did. The reason we took this approach was to be pro-active and work to reach a resolution on these tax-liability issues.

I understand Amazon has filed a suit against the program. One of their arguments is that you request the titles of books and CDs that their customers order online, and they see that as an invasion of privacy.

A federal judge in Washington state heard arguments on Oct. 13 in a suit filed by Amazon in April 2010 against the North Carolina Department of Revenue. As we noted in a recent press release, Amazon is seeking to interfere in a tax investigation and preventing the department from obtaining information relevant to an audit.

As we also noted in that press release. Amazon has raised First Amendment issues, all of which should be heard in the North Carolina court system. Firmly established principles of state sovereignty prevent federal courts from intervening in a state's tax investigation, and the department has moved to dismiss the federal lawsuit.

We have explained that information needed to calculate taxes does not reveal the personal preferences of consumers. Specific book, CD or movie titles have not been requested. The department guards personal taxpayer information on a daily basis and recognizes the value of privacy.

This is an issue of fairness for local businesses that are at a competitive disadvantage when they collect sales tax that e-commerce retailers, like Amazon, do not. The DOR is committed to supporting North Carolina businesses and facilitating the equitable collection of taxes from all taxpayers.

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