Online Shopping Takes Sales Tax Revenue from Texas Government

Sales taxes made up 31 percent of all state revenue in 2016.

by Lydia DePillis, Houston Chronicle / July 19, 2017
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(TNS) -- As online shopping takes bigger and bigger bites out of the business of brick and mortar stores, it's not only undermining retail employment but also continuing to pose problems for state and local governments, which lose billions of dollars in sales taxes each year to online purchases.

Sales taxes made up 31 percent of all state revenue in 2016. But the Supreme Court found in 1992 that it's only legal to impose sales taxes if the vendor has a physical presence in the state where the buyer is located.

Over the years, that has taken a toll on state sales tax collections - 22 states saw their revenues either decline or fail to keep pace with inflation last year, according to analysis of Census data by National Public Radio. Over the last four decades, the aggregate tax base for all states has shrunk rather than grown, a 2015 study found.

To try to stem the erosion of sales tax revenue, states are getting creative in determining what "physical presence" means - for example, expanding the legal definition to include online marketplaces that, for a small cut of the proceeds, drive traffic to out-of-state retailers, as Rice University Baker Institute fellow Joyce Beebe outlined in a brief issued this week.

That is creating a patchwork of state laws that frustrate retailers - especially smaller ones that have fewer resources than Amazon, which earlier this year started collecting sales taxes in all 50 states. There are several proposals in Congress to create a uniform system, but they've been mired in disagreements for at least 15 years.

So, is that what's happening in Texas, where sales taxes make up more than half the state's revenues? Under state law, buyers are supposed to pay a "use tax" on items purchased from out of state, but compliance is largely voluntary and infrequent. Amazon has been collecting sales taxes in Texas since 2012 and since then has remitted more than $270 million to the state.

Amazon, however, doesn't collect taxes from the third-party sales that take place on its platform, estimated at 40 percent of Amazon's total sales. Indeed, according to the state comptroller, only about 1 percent of the state's sales tax revenues come from online sales. The Census reports that 8.7 percent of retail sales come from e-commerce, which suggests substantial avoidance by online retailers.

Texas sales tax collections fell in 2016, for the first time since 2010. But the decline also coincided with the worst oil-related downturn in 30 years, so it's difficult to tell whether the internet was at fault.

Clearly, economic cycles have a more powerful impact on sales taxes than leakage from online sales. Still, the state may be leaving tens of millions of dollars on the table each year, which turns out to matter when legislators are looking to plug holes in the budget.

There appears to be only two ways to stop leakage in sales tax collections: Congress enacting a law that makes it easier for states to collect taxes on internet sales or the Supreme Court revisiting its 1992 decision.

In the meantime, as the internet complicates the question of where sales occur and who collects taxes on them, Texas may want to consider making itself less dependent on sales taxes.

©2017 the Houston Chronicle Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.