Clash of the tax and retail titans
Since I counsel a lot of online businesses, including online retailers, I am often asked about the sales tax implications of online sales. Generally speaking, the answer is pretty easy: If you are a Colorado business and sell goods to individuals residing in Colorado, then you have to collect Colorado sales tax and the appropriate county and city taxes from the consumers and remit the sales tax to the appropriate taxing authority.
Technically speaking, Colorado consumers are supposed to report and calculate the value of goods purchased from out-of-state business and pay the state government the appropriate tax. Of course, no one does this, and the state has no way of knowing how much each taxpayer purchases and how much tax is owed.
In an attempt to capture all of these unpaid taxes, the state passed what became known as the Amazon Tax in 2010. The Amazon tax required internet retailers to collect the sales tax from Colorado consumers, or in the alternative, notify each Colorado customer and the State in writing that they owed sales tax on their purchases and provide the customer with a list of all goods purchased by the customer and the amounts spent.
The Amazon Tax poses many issues for large and small online businesses alike. In the case of a large retailer such as Amazon, the task of complying with Colorado’s law is mammoth, due to the enormous volume of transactions the company processes. It would force Amazon to specifically set up unique systems just for Colorado customers.
If every state enacted differing laws concerning the collection of sales tax with differing requirements, it could be a nightmare for large nationwide retailers. Likewise, for smaller online retailers, the Amazon Tax potentially poses a large cost burden in acquiring the systems that would allow the collection of the tax, or complying with the notice requirements.
Enter the U.S. Constitution and the commerce clause. The commerce clause is getting a lot of press these days because of “Obamacare," but it is also intimately connected to online commerce. In this instance, we are concerned with what is called the reverse commerce clause – basically the theory that state laws cannot place an undue burden on interstate commerce (commerce between states).
In March, Federal District Court Judge Robert Blackburn tossed out the law, stating, “I conclude that the veil provided by the words of the act and the regulation is too thin to support the conclusion that the act and the regulations regulate in-state and out-of-state retailers even-handedly,” and that the law and regulations “impose an undue burden on interstate commerce.”
This ruling confirms what scholars and commentators have said for a long time – any sort of taxation on internet sales has to come from a national level. Given the plethora of issues already being debated at the national level, I think online retailers are safe from any additional government involvement – at least for a little while.