Net taxes could arrive by this fall

Congress is weighing whether to lift a prohibition on Internet taxes, and one senator warns an e-mail tax could happen by this fall.

The era of tax-free e-mail, Internet shopping and broadband connections could end this fall, if recent proposals in the U.S. Congress prove successful.

State and local governments this week resumed a push to lobby Congress for far-reaching changes on two different fronts: gaining the ability to impose sales taxes on Net shopping, and being able to levy new monthly taxes on DSL and other connections. One senator is even predicting taxes on e-mail.

At the moment, states and municipalities are frequently barred by federal law from collecting both access and sales taxes. But they're hoping that their new lobbying effort, coordinated by groups including the National Governors Association, will pay off by permitting them to collect billions of dollars in new revenue by next year.

If that doesn't happen, other taxes may zoom upward instead, warned Sen. Michael Enzi, a Wyoming Republican, at a Senate hearing on Wednesday. "Are we implicitly blessing a situation where states are forced to raise other taxes, such as income or property taxes, to offset the growing loss of sales tax revenue?" Enzi said. "I want to avoid that."

A flurry of proposals that pro-tax advocates advanced this week push in that direction. On Tuesday, Enzi introduced a bill that would usher in mandatory sales tax collection for Internet purchases. Second, during a House of Representatives hearing the same day, politicians weighed whether to let a temporary ban on Net access taxes lapse when it expires on November 1. A House backer of another said this week to expect a final version by July.

"The independent and sovereign authority of states to develop their own revenue systems is a basic tenet of self government and our federal system," said David Quam, director of federal relations at the National Governors Association, during a Senate Commerce committee hearing on Wednesday.

Internet sales taxes
At the moment, for instance, Seattle-based is not required to collect sales taxes on shipments to millions of its customers in states like California, where Amazon has no offices. (Californians are supposed to voluntarily pay the tax owed when filing annual state tax returns, but few do.)

Ideas to alter this situation hardly represent a new debate: officials from the governors' association have been pressing Congress to enact such a law for at least six years. They invoke arguments--unsuccessful so far--like saying that reduced sales tax revenue threatens budgets for schools and police.

But with Democrats now in control of both chambers of Congress, the political dynamic appears to have shifted in favor of the pro-tax advocates and their allies on Capitol Hill. The NetChoice coalition, which counts as members eBay, Yahoo and the Electronic Retailing Association and opposes the sales tax plan, fears that the partisan shift will spell trouble.

One long-standing objection to mandatory sales tax collection, which the Supreme Court in a 1992 case left up to Congress to decide, is the complexity of more than 7,500 different tax agencies that each have their own (and frequently bizarre) rules. Some legal definitions (PDF) tax Milky Way Midnight candy bars as candy and treat the original Milky Way bar as food. Peanut butter Girl Scout cookies are candy, but Thin Mints or Caramel deLites are classified as food.

The pro-tax forces say that a concept called the Streamlined Sales Tax Agreement will straighten out some of the notorious convolutions of state tax laws. Enzi's bill, introduced this week, relies on the agreement when providing "federal authorization" to require out-of-state retailers "to collect and remit the sales and use taxes" due on the purchase. (Small businesses with less than $5 million in out-of-state sales are exempted.)

It's "important to level the playing field for all retailers," Enzi said during Wednesday's hearing.

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