Thanks in part to a series of deals with state governments in recent years, Amazon is collecting sales tax in every state that has one. But those deals do not always extend to taxes assessed by local governments.
When Amazon agreed last year to begin collecting sales tax in New Mexico, state officials celebrated what they said could be tens of millions of dollars in annual tax revenue.
But they are not cheering in Albuquerque City Hall. A year after that announcement, New Mexico’s largest city has not seen a dime from Amazon. That’s because the online shopping giant’s deal applied only to the 5.125 percent statewide tax, not to the 2.375 percent tax tacked on by the city of Albuquerque.
“The loser in that arrangement is cities,” Mayor Tim Keller said. “Cities are really being left to themselves.”
Thanks in part to a series of deals with state governments in recent years, Amazon is collecting sales tax in every state that has one. But those deals do not always extend to taxes assessed by local governments. The company still is not collecting sales taxes in dozens of cities, including Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, according to a new report from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, a left-leaning think tank. Those cities are in seven states: Alabama, Alaska, Idaho, Iowa, Mississippi, New Mexico and Pennsylvania.
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Carl Davis, the report’s author, said local governments were missing out on millions in tax revenue when other income streams are also under strain. And local retailers, many already struggling to compete with online retailers, are effectively forced to charge more for their products than online sellers that are not required to collect local taxes.
“It’s just a direct price advantage that shows up on customers’ receipts,” Davis said. “You never want to end up in the situation where the companies you’re offering better deals to are the ones that don’t even have roots in your community.”
Amazon says it collects taxes in every jurisdiction where it is required to do so, and Davis’ report found that the company does collect local taxes in most states. But a hodgepodge of state laws govern tax collection, meaning there is not a simple solution for municipalities that are now left out.
Davis said his findings were less the fault of Amazon than of state tax systems that do not require, and in some cases do not allow, online retailers to collect local taxes. He said states rushed to strike deals with Amazon without always ensuring that local governments would benefit as well.
“It’s just been overshadowed by the state issue,” Davis said. “It’s smaller dollars at play, but for these communities, it’s dollars that matter.”
Amazon sometimes collects taxes where other online retailers do not. In Chicago, for example, Amazon collects local taxes because it has warehouses and other facilities in Illinois; online retailers that do not have a physical presence in the state generally do not have to collect taxes there.
Usually it is states — not cities or counties — that decide who has to collect local sales taxes. In most states, taxes are based on the location of the buyer, and retailers are required to collect local sales taxes alongside state taxes. But in some states, including New Mexico, taxes are based on the location of the seller, meaning there is no mechanism for collecting taxes from sellers that do not have a physical presence in the area. Other states have other legal quirks that affect local tax collections.
Those loopholes have existed for years, but their significance has grown greatly with the rise of online retail, said Scott Peterson, vice president of government relations at Seattle-based Avalara, a company that helps retailers calculate and collect sales taxes.
“This huge hole that exists in the sales-tax structure has been known for a long time,” Peterson said. “Their laws have not kept up.”
A pending U.S. Supreme Court case, South Dakota v. Wayfair Inc., could change the legal landscape, but not necessarily simplify it. Depending on the outcome, the case could pave the way for states to require companies to collect sales taxes even if they do not have a location in the state. But local governments in Pennsylvania, New Mexico and other states still would not be able to collect taxes without help from their legislatures.
Local government officials in many parts of the country say the rise of tax-free online shopping has had a big effect on their budgets. Albuquerque, for example, relies on the sales tax — or what is known in New Mexico as a gross receipts tax — for nearly two-thirds of its general-fund revenue, which totaled about $500 million last year. The city’s finance department estimates that it lost out on $5 million in tax revenue on Amazon purchases in 2016, although calculations are difficult because of a lack of available data. Lost revenue from other online retailers adds millions of dollars more.
Keller, the mayor, said Amazon benefited from city services, such as the roads used by delivery trucks carrying its packages and the police officers who make sure packages are not stolen. But unlike local retailers, the company does not chip in.
“This is the fundamental way we fund American society, and thanks to technology they found a way to opt out of that,” Keller said. “They’re getting a free ride.”