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Online sales tax could be looming

Published 9:07am Thursday, April 25, 2013

I’m torn, and I think I need some help deciding what I think. You won’t hear me say that very often.
It seems the U.S. Senate is primed to pass a bill that will allow state and local governments to impose sales taxes on Internet-based purchases, even if the seller has no “brick-and-mortar” location in the immediate area.
On one hand, I’m a fan of online shopping. See, I’m not particularly keen on fighting crowds at the mall or Walmart. Well, honestly, even if there’s no crowd to speak of, I’m not a big fan of shopping, in the traditional sense, at all.
The Internet, on the other hand, lets me browse a nearly unlimited selection, with the kind of specialized items that don’t make much sense to stock in a local store.
It seems there isn’t major demand for vintage Star Wars T-shirts, obnoxiously long colorful scarves as worn on the BBC’s late ‘70s Doctor Who, or a triangular-faced bracelet watch my wife simply adored.
Personally, I think there should be, but I accept my tastes are a few degrees off mainstream.
But another thing nice about Internet shopping is that you don’t have to pay sales tax. Now, technically speaking, you’re supposed to. But Amazon, eBay and the various other online retailers don’t collect it. We’re just asked to pay it when we file our taxes each year, honest Injun.
I’m not going to speculate how many do so, but I bet the state doesn’t receive nearly as much as it’s owed. I declare some, but I’ll admit I’m guesstimating, almost definitely on the low side.
But really, I’m not terribly worried about whether the state gets all the revenue it feels it’s due. When somebody tips the scales at more than a half-ton, you usually shouldn’t share your box of Twinkies. And so too, a new revenue source doesn’t seem like the cure for the state’s spending addiction.
But it affects local businesses, too.
Assuming someone local did carry that awesome 16-foot scarf made semi-famous by Tom Baker, the fourth incarnation of Doctor Who’s lead character, there would be a temptation to save that extra 8 to 10 percent and get it online.
Especially in Amazon’s case, where membership in the Prime program provides free shipping.
But our neighbors and friends depend on local sales. And the couple of bucks of savings has the potential to wreck their walk-in business.
That, in turn, can destroy the look of our cities and towns, because it only takes one empty storefront to trigger the domino effect that empties out a downtown or retail hub.
But then there are the mom-and-pops of the online world, who depend on little shoestring operations on eBay, Etsy or a personal website to keep the power on. These operations lack anything approaching the infrastructure necessary to calculate and collect the various sales tax regimes of 50 states.
Do you know the state sales tax for Hawaii or Vermont? I sure don’t
It’s entirely possible the new demands, though pushed through for perfectly benevolent reasons, could destroy many small knitting, pottery or collectibles businesses.
Nobody does unintended consequences like Congress.
So here I am, torn between the hometown rock and my cheapskate hard place.
I’d love to hear some views from regular folks on this dilemma. Is there anyone out there who makes a living on Internet sales? How much would it cost to figure up, charge and then remit those taxes?
Are local businesses feeling the pinch of the world’s largest department store, the one where you can shop without putting your pants on?
Anyone out there just upset that Congress is finding another nitpicky way to get into our wallets?
Help me out, because I’m on the fence.
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I would be remiss if I didn’t add a note of condolence for you Auburn fans, who watched your beloved Toomer’s Corner trees removed Tuesday. I have a warm place in my heart for them, but since I’m a Bama fan, I know you don’t want to hear any of that.
I can’t imagine the loss, the anger, the slightly ridiculous feeling of loss and anger. Fandom is a weird kind of thing, which makes you feel fierce feelings that are quite hard to explain.
We don’t agree on much, we Bamers and Barners. But I’m pretty sure the whole state’s feeling something melancholy this week.

David D. Goodwin is political editor of The Wetumpka Herald. Contact him at david.goodwin@ the wetumpkaherald.com.

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