Internet Tax Report In, But Issue Isn't Over

WASHINGTON (04/13/2000) - Despite the work of a 19-member commission that met for 10 months, heard from more than 55 experts, received thousands of pieces of mail and formally presented a 150-page report to Congress Wednesday, the issue of Internet sales taxes is as unresolved as ever.

"On the first call to battle, the commission came to the decision that "we stalemated ourselves,'" said Jerry Mechling, director of the Strategic Computing Program at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. Because the fiercely divided committee couldn't compromise, their report recommends keeping the status quo: a moratorium on new Internet taxes.

"That's not a bad thing," Mechling said. "But in the long term, they're going to have to resolve this."

The Advisory Commission on Electronic Commerce, charged by Congress to prepare the report, presented its work on Wednesday. The group first sat down to discuss e-commerce taxation last June. After meeting three more times, the sessions culminated with a tense meeting in Dallas last month.

Though the group's work is over, the issue surely is not.

Both sides of the issue stand resolute. On one side are state and local government officials who not only fear the loss of sales tax revenue, but believe their local bricks and mortar stores can't compete against Internet businesses. On the other are those who believe government should keep their hands off e-commerce and let it flourish.

Throughout the process, many organizations have taken a stand on the issue, including the National Governors' Association, the National Conference of State Legislatures, the Council of State Governments, The U.S. Conference of Mayors, the National League of Cities, the National Association of Counties and the National Retail Federation.

At the center of the debate is the Internet Tax Freedom Act of 1998, which established a three-year ban on special, discriminatory taxes on e-commerce, although it does not specifically mention state and local sales taxes. That expires Oct. 21, 2001.

Because two-thirds of the commission couldn't agree on a tax solution - a stipulation required by Congress - even the commission's report is the subject of debate.

Nevertheless, the report recommends extending the moratorium on new and discriminatory Internet taxes until 2006, ban Internet access taxes, prohibit sales taxes on sale of digital goods and services and eliminate the federal telephone tax.

"Government has no right to expand tax burdens on Americans just because a similar commercial transaction is taxed," Commission Chairman Gov. James Gilmore, a Republican from Virginia, said last week to the Telecommunications, Trade and Consumer Protection Subcommittee of The House Commerce Committee.

"Government should take only what it needs and stop there."

Now that Congress has the report, Mechling said he expects it to act on the recommendations and draft a bill.

Cameron Whitman, director of Policy and Federal Relations at the National League of Cities, one of the strongest tax advocates, hopes Congress holds off on acting on the report.

Whitman said the League would continue to work to create a "simplified, streamlined sales tax model" for e-commerce. With such a system, and because the current moratorium only covers new taxes, she said states could simply extend current sales taxes to the Internet, recouping lost revenues.

"The problem is how to collect them, not that they're on the Internet," she said.

Although the lost revenue could become an issue, Mechling said that won't happen for at least a decade.

"At the moment, the states aren't going to lose a whole lot," he said, pegging the loss at less than one percent of total revenues.

In terms of what happens next, Mechling said he expects Congress to extend the ban on taxes, and then continue to look into the issue. He sees two possible avenues for the future:

* Internet business will peak and "cap itself out," just as mail-order business did years ago. "It wasn't a mortal pain," he said about those revenue loses.

* Somewhat of a "crisis" will develop as the economy changes further, and "we'll have to refigure out how we fund local governments," he said.

Mechling said he's leaning toward the second option.

"If allowed to go unaddressed for a long time," he said, "It is likely to create a problem."

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