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  1. Opinion

Online sales tax is so reasonable, Legislature argues against it

Published Feb. 19, 2012

Something ridiculous is going on in the state Legislature right now.

That's the first part of the story. The easy-to-understand portion of the tale.

In a time of declining revenue, severe budget cuts and frightening consequences for health care and education, our lawmakers have been handed a gift.

A simple, reasonable, wholly logical way to potentially increase state income by hundreds of millions of dollars every year.

To which they have replied:

Meh.

They may do it. They might not. But if they do, they want to make absolutely, positively sure that this isn't additional revenue. They'll only accept this money if they get to give back an equal amount of money.

To which you should reply:

Huh?

We have University of South Florida leaders shouting about "devastating'' budget cuts. We have blue-collar folks traveling to Tallahassee to plead with lawmakers not to destroy small-town economies by shutting down state prisons.

We have mental health advocates talking of the dire consequences of cutting needed programs. We have educators considering four-day school weeks to save money.

And the Legislature is turning its back on stacks of cash?

Which brings us to the second part of the story. The more complex portion of the tale.

Lawmakers are blaming … you.

Maybe not you specifically. Maybe not your mother or neighbor or boss. But they claim they are Looney Tunes because we, as an electorate, have made them that way.

Let me back up a bit, and explain.

There are bills in the Senate and House this session that have to do with sales tax for online purchases. You would think this was a pretty straightforward issue.

If you buy, let's say, a book in some adorable corner shop, you're going to pay a sales tax. Yet if you buy it online, there is no mechanism for collecting a sales tax. So not only is the state missing out on potential revenue, but it's also penalizing a locally owned business.

Some might say it is hard to argue against the idea of enforcing this so-called e-commerce law. I'd go so far as to say it is insane to argue against it.

There is no reason for online merchants to have this economic advantage over businesses with honest-to-goodness ties to our communities. And there is no reason for the state to turn a blind eye to substantial sales tax revenue.

Yet the only way lawmakers will approve this law is if they can give away an equal amount of taxes elsewhere. Maybe it will be more corporate tax cuts. Maybe it will be additional sales tax holidays. That part of the equation is inconsequential.

The bigger issue is all of these lawmakers are petrified. It's not the actual enforcement of tax laws that bothers them. It's the accusation that they raised taxes.

They are afraid of the political opportunists who will paint them as tax-and-spend liberals. And they're afraid of the gullible voters who get suckered by that nonsense.

Painful as it is to admit, they have a point.

Voters in this state sent that kind of tea party-obsessed message in the last election cycle. And anyone looking for re-election has to consider that potential pitfall.

This doesn't mean certain lawmakers aren't gutless for thinking that way. They are. And it doesn't mean certain legislators don't have sneaky, disingenuous and self-serving motives. They do.

But the reality is too many voters are swayed by empty, buzzword politics.

This tax law is sensible, equitable and necessary. It should have been a no-brainer 10 years ago when the state was flush, and it's even more important today when Medicare patients are being squeezed, and elementary students are being shortchanged.

Yet some politicians are afraid to do the right thing.

And they say it's because of you.

John Romano can be reached at romano@tampabay.com.

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