published Sunday, April 29th, 2012

Amazon sends out sales tax notices

Aerial of the Amazon  distribution center in Chattanooga/Hamilton County shot March 5, 2012.
Aerial of the Amazon distribution center in Chattanooga/Hamilton County shot March 5, 2012.
Photo by Dan Henry /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
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PAYING TAXES


To pay uncollected consumer use tax, the equivalent of sales tax for online purchases, visit https://apps.tn.gov/usetax.

Poll
Will you pay your state use tax on Amazon purchases?

Matt Malone's wife buys pretty much everything on Amazon.com.

"Shoes, cologne, movies, books -- she'd rather have it delivered to her door than have to go out and get it," the Chattanooga man said.

Online shopping offers more than convenience. Internet retailers such as Amazon don't collect state sales tax on purchases, in effect giving a nearly 10 percent discount instantly to Tennessee shoppers.

But that's changing. Last week, Amazon started sending emails to customers, letting them know how much money they had spent at the online superstore and that they may owe the government use tax, the online equivalent to sales tax.

Malone hasn't gotten the email yet -- an agreement with the state gives Amazon about two months to send out notices -- but he's sure it's coming.

Whether he'll take the time to go online, fill out the necessary forms and send some extra money to the state is another matter.

"I don't think it's right to go back and tax somebody who bought something eight months ago," he said. "Going forward I think they should. It's tax revenue. It should be done, but I don't think they should go back."

It's still too early to tell whether Amazon's emails are causing any tax collection increases, but Billy Trout, communications manager for the Tennessee Department of Revenue, said his office has received plenty of calls from taxpayers wondering why they're getting the email and whether they need to pay the tax.

The government use tax has been on the books since 1947, along with the laws that form our modern sales tax code. But few consumers knew about the law, leaving many surprised and indignant after opening Amazon's email.

"A lot of people don't know about it," Trout said. "Now there's increased awareness, and with increased awareness comes the possibility of more returns coming in as well as more money."

Amazon does not report sales to the state, so it's unlikely the average consumer will see any repercussions if he fails to pay his back taxes. Shoppers who do pay won't be hit by late fees.

"I'm sure they'll get some revenues," said Bill Fox, director of the University of Tennessee's Center for Business and Economic Research in Knoxville. "I'm sure much of it will continue to go uncollected."

Amazon will start collecting state sales tax at the point of sale by Jan. 1, 2014. But it is just one of thousands of online retailers that leave the payment of sales tax up to the consumer.

Tennessee will lose an estimated $410.8 million to uncollected taxes related to online commerce this year, according to a study by Fox and his center. Nationally, that number shoots to more than $11 billion.

Those losses hurt states, but they can have an even more significant effect on brick-and-mortar retailers who lose sales to online vendors because of the tax savings.

"The economy works best when we get taxes out of the equation of where you're going to shop," Fox said. "Consumers should just go out and buy what they want to buy and know they're in the same tax structure no matter what."

There has been some movement in Congress to address the problem on a national level. The Main Street Fairness Act would allow states to require online retailers to collect sales tax in the same manner as brick-and-mortar stores.

The bill has found 50 co-sponsors in the House and Senate and drawn the support of 10 Republican governors, including Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam.

"Ultimately this is about the businesses in our communities that will close and the jobs that will be lost if we don't level the playing field," Danny Diaz, spokesman for the Alliance for Main Street Fairness, said in an email. "A truly free market where everyone plays by the same rules will benefit both retailers and consumers."

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