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STATEWIDE INTERNET SALES TAX IDEA HAS FANS IN PINELLAS PARK

Some say it's a way for local businesses to better compete with online retailers.

Egged on by an angry business owner, Pinellas Park Mayor Bill Mischler suggested his city should start a movement to persuade the Legislature to tax Internet sales.

The Pinellas Park council could pass a resolution urging the Legislature to pass such a tax, then share it with other Pinellas governments to gain their support, he said. That might help push the Pinellas legislative delegation into introducing an online sales tax bill.

"We can try it," Mischler said. "Florida is losing more and more money."

Mischler's proposal won the instant approval of Patricia Johnson, a former council candidate, who owns two businesses in the city. One of those businesses, Amber Glen Feed Depot on Park Boulevard, sells retail horse supplies. Johnson has long complained that online sales cut into local business because people shop on the Web specifically to avoid sales taxes.

Johnson raised her complaint again at a Town Hall meeting last Tuesday, saying she wanted to "get you guys really, really mad to do something. .... (We're) talking billions and billions of dollars."

Pinellas Park council member Jerry Mullins said he, too, supported the idea. Mullins said he broached the idea of a sales tax with 20 state representatives when visiting Tallahassee with a "busload" of people earlier this year, but got nowhere.

Imposing a sales tax on Internet purchases is popular with some elected officials who see it as a way to recoup some of the losses governments are facing as a result of Amendment 1 and declining property values. Others say an Internet sales tax would also put local businesses on a more equal footing with those online retailers who don't charge sales taxes.

Reaction to Mischler's idea was mixed.

Seminole Mayor Jimmy Johnson, who also serves as executive director of the Seminole Chamber of Commerce, said he personally supports an e-tax and believes Mischler should ask for countywide support.

"I think it's necessary," Johnson said. "It's only fair that they (e-tailers) pay. Why should I have to pay and they don't have to pay? You have to put your heart to it and think about it."

Johnson said he's not sure how other Seminole council members would feel about the idea, but he thinks that most would be supportive. Most, he said, are in business and would likely see the wisdom of putting all retailers on an equal footing and perhaps driving more consumers back to local shopping.

Pinellas County Commission Chairman Calvin Harris, on the other hand, said he opposes the tax.

"I think it's a bad thing. Times are really hard for people now. The Internet sales, without the sales tax, is really no different than the state giving a sales tax holiday," Harris said. "I would hate to see us do that, especially with Christmas coming and people are struggling."

Internet sales help people save money not only by lower costs, he said, but also by conserving gas they'd burn driving around shopping locally.

As for seeing the tax as a pot from which to replenish declining property taxes, Harris said: "You can't gimmick your way out" of the current situation. Governments need to find long-term, sensible solutions to the budget crunch and "not always drop the hammer on our struggling citizens."

If the idea does get off the ground, it will find at least one member of the legislative delegation willing to back the proposal.

"Kudos to Pinellas Park that they are looking at new and innovative ways of doing things," said state Rep. Janet Long, D-Seminole. "They (would be) taking a pretty heroic position and I'd like to think at the end of the day most municipalities would buy into it."

But Long said she agrees with at least one point Harris made. The fix for the state's budget woes needs to be long term.

"All of these things are great and they're creative and they're outside the box, but at the end of the day we need real reform of our tax policy in our state," Long said.

It's unclear if the idea would gain the support of the leadership of the legislative delegation. The group's chairman state Rep. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, could not be reached for comment.

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