WASHINGTON — The Senate aimed to help traditional retailers and financially strapped state and local governments Monday by passing a bill that would widely subject online shopping — for many a largely tax-free frontier — to state sales taxes.
The Senate passed the bill by a vote of 69 to 27, getting support from Republicans and Democrats alike. But opposition from some conservatives who view it as a tax increase will make it a tougher sell in the House. President Barack Obama has conveyed his support for the measure.
Under current law, states can only require retailers to collect sales taxes if the store has a physical presence in the state.
That means big retailers with stores all over the country like Wal-Mart, Best Buy and Target collect sales taxes when they sell goods over the Internet. But online retailers like eBay and Amazon don't have to collect sales taxes, except in states where they have offices or distribution centers.
As a result, many online sales are tax-free, giving Internet retailers an advantage.
If the bill passes Congress, Florida could decide whether or not to require online companies to collect the state's 6 percent sales tax.
For several years, business groups have urged Florida to pass such a law. Though support among lawmakers for the online sales tax bill has grown each year, the Legislature has not yet fully embraced the idea.
Gov. Rick Scott has indicated he would support an online sales tax, but only if it was coupled with similarly sized tax cut. According to estimates, Floridians save more than $400 million per year in sales taxes by purchasing items over the Internet.
Under the legislation passed by the Senate, the sales taxes would be sent to the state where the shopper lives.
"We ought to have a structure in place in the states that treats all retail the same," said Matthew Shay, president and CEO of the National Retail Federation. "Small retailers are collecting (sales tax) on the first dollar of any sale they make, and it's only fair that other retailers who are selling to those same customers the same product have those same obligations."
Supporters say the current tax disparity is turning some traditional stores into showrooms, where shoppers pick out items they like, then buy them on the Internet to avoid sales taxes.
"It's about the way commerce has changed in America," said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. "Bookstores, stores that sell running shoes, bicycles and appliances are at a distinct disadvantage. They've become showrooms."
Internet giant eBay is leading the fight against the bill, along with lawmakers from states with no sales tax and several prominent anti-tax groups. The bill's opponents say it would put an expensive obligation on small businesses because they are not as equipped as national merchandisers to collect and remit sales taxes at the multitude of state rates.
"Giant retailers have a requirement to collect sales taxes nationwide because they have physical presence nationwide," eBay president John Donahoe wrote in an online column over the weekend. "Likewise, today small retail stores and online retailers collect sales taxes for the one state where they are located. That's a fair requirement."
"If the bill passes, small online businesses would have the same tax compliance obligations and face the same enforcement risks as giant retailers, despite the fact that they are usually located in just one state."
Businesses with less than $1 million in online sales would be exempt. EBay wants to exempt businesses with up to $10 million in sales or fewer than 50 workers.
Some states have sales taxes as high as 7 percent, plus city and county taxes that can push the combined rate even higher. For example, the combined state and local sales tax is 9 percent in Los Angeles and 9.25 percent in Chicago. In New York City, it's 8.5 percent and in Richmond, Va., 5 percent. In many states, shoppers are already required to pay unpaid sales tax when they file their state income tax returns. However, states complain that few taxpayers comply.
Many governors — Republicans and Democrats — have been lobbying the federal government for years for the authority to collect sales taxes from online sales.
The issue is getting bigger for states as more people make purchases online. Last year, Internet sales in the U.S. totaled $226 billion, up nearly 16 percent from the previous year, according to government estimates.
States lost a total of $23 billion last year because they couldn't collect taxes on out-of-state sales, according to a study done for the National Conference of State Legislatures, which has lobbied for the bill. About half of that was lost from Internet sales; half from purchases made through catalogs, mail orders and telephone orders, the study said.
Information from the Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau was used in this report.