E-Commerce Surge May Hit Tax Revenue
The lack of sales taxes on Internet purchases is one of the factors driving online sales growth, research suggests. When MIT economists Glenn Ellison and Sara Fisher Ellison looked at online sales of computer memory modules, for example, they found that sales were substantially higher to high sales tax states than to low sales tax states — “clear evidence that tax savings are an important motivation for online shopping,” they wrote.
The Commerce Department reported Thursday that e-commerce retail sales totaled $44 billion in the fourth quarter last year, up from $38 billion a year earlier. E-commerce sales now account for 4.3% of total retail sales (which include lots of things that don’t get bought online, like new cars, gasoline and restaurant meals), up from 1% a decade ago. For the year, e-commerce sales totaled $165 billion.
Many of those online purchases didn’t have any sales tax attached to them. Long before the Internet was on anybody’s radar, the Supreme Court ruled that states couldn’t require that retailers without a physical presence in a state, like mail-order companies, charge sales tax on their behalf. In recent years, states have tried to find ways around that ruling. Last fall, for example, Texas said an Amazon.com distribution center in Dallas counted as a physical presence and sent the retailer a past-due sale tax bill for $269 million. This month, Amazon said it is shutting down the distribution center as a result of Texas’s “unfavorable regulatory climate.”