If Florida were a state that put a priority on leveling the playing field for its businesses, Amazon.com's proposal to continue to avoid collecting sales taxes here for another two years by building distribution warehouses wouldn't have any traction. But for more than a decade, the Republican-led Legislature has refused to protect Florida's traditional retailers and has allowed Amazon and other out-of-state, Internet-only merchants the competitive advantage of not having to collect sales tax. That Amazon.com is coming to the table looking for a deal suggests some progress, but lawmakers could still do the right thing: Take a stand for in-state businesses and move to directly begin collecting sales taxes from Amazon.com and other Internet-only merchants.
Amazon.com's Florida strategy mirrors its efforts in other states where a growing resentment from traditional merchants and the erosion of tax revenues has prodded legislatures to finally move to update their state sales tax policies. In Florida, Amazon.com has contacted several top state leaders and offered to build up to $200 million worth of distribution warehouses in the state and employ up to 3,000 people, but only if lawmakers still don't make it collect sales taxes for at least two years.
The irony is that building a facility here would qualify the company as an official bricks-and-mortar merchant, triggering the requirement that it actually collect sales taxes for its Florida sales. But this behemoth, allowed to be a scofflaw for so long, still doesn't want to play by the rules.
Amazon.com's job creation pitch, honed so nicely to the current economic climate, has worked elsewhere. Indiana allowed the company to build warehouses there in 2008 and excused it from collecting sales taxes, only to renege this year under pressure from the in-state retail industry. Yet Amazon still won't pay taxes until 2014. California cracked down last year but ultimately gave Amazon.com another one-year sales tax holiday to end litigation.
The issue remains that Florida businesses deserve a level playing field: The small business owner launching a new shop doesn't get the option of not collecting sales taxes for two years. Nor does the newest big-box store, explaining why Walmart helped lead the opposition in Indiana. Not only does such policy undermine local employment, it erodes tax revenues, shortchanging everything from education to public safety.
Finally, in Tallahassee, there is some traction to pass an e-commerce tax bill, which has resulted in Amazon.com once again trying to game the system. The question is whether this carpetbagger, which has already benefited from years of preferential tax policy at a cost to Florida jobs and businesses, will get two more years by promising to create jobs here. It certainly doesn't deserve to.