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News Story
Updated: 06/26/2013 08:00:08AM

Tax favoritism raises questions

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The continuing efforts to attract — or run off — an Amazon distribution center in central Florida have raised two significant tax issues.

At first, Gov. Rick Scott didn’t want Amazon warehouses in Florida because, by his reasoning, this was the road to a sales tax “increase.” That position created consternation in Polk County, and particularly in Winter Haven, which appeared to be a likely site for the Amazon complex and perhaps 3,000 new jobs.

Scott, who is expected to have a real battle on his hands in his bid for a second term, yanked away the Welcome mat for Amazon because if the giant mail order firm has a facility in Florida, it must collect Florida sales taxes, just like all other sellers of retail goods in the state.

Scott, who is trying to take credit both for barring new taxes and for attracting new jobs, first decided that barring taxes was more important in this case.

While paying sales tax on Amazon purchases would be a new experience for most Floridians, state law clearly requires payment of such taxes. But there is a loophole of massive proportions: Mail order businesses are not required to collect the sales tax, so it falls on customers to rat themselves out to the Florida Department of Revenue and voluntarily pay taxes that the seller, by all rights, should be collecting.

Businesses know that they better pay what is called a “use tax” for untaxed purchases, because they are subject to DOR audits. But Joe and Minnie Lunchbucket don’t even know how to go about paying the tax if they wanted to.

Congress is considering, but thus far has not enacted, legislation to require major national mail order houses to collect state sales taxes. The task would be incredibly simple with a computer program matching ZIP codes of purchasers to tax laws from their jurisdiction.

Instead, brick-and-mortar stores, which provide jobs and pay taxes in the communities in which they do business, must charge sales tax, while mail order houses sell for 6 percent or more discounts by virtue of not having to collect state and local option sales taxes.

A new tax? Hardly! This law would simply require mail order vendors to collect taxes already on the books.

When Scott decided that 3,000 new jobs (not to mention fairness for Florida retailers) were more important than a bogus “no new tax” stand, and put the Welcome mat back out, Florida cities and counties began a “can you top this?” Competition to try to attract the Amazon warehouse complex.

Last Wednesday, Hillsborough County commissioners offered a $6 million tax giveaway; it would charge Amazon only half the property taxes the mail order giant should pay for its first six years.

We expect the tax giveaway bidding will continue.

We acknowledge that the game is played in this tawdry fashion, and for the worst possible reason: “Because everybody else does it.”

Taxes are intended to generate the revenue necessary to provide government services. They are not imposed to punish some taxpayers, and they should not be waived to favor others.

When one taxpayer pays less than its share, the burden falls on other taxpayers to pay more than their share.

If such favoritism is inescapable, we would rather see it benefit mom and pop entrepreneurs who put their life’s savings into a corner hardware store or a Main Street gift shop, not multi-billion dollar businesses.

As a practical matter, Florida does not have to bribe national firms to locate in the Sunshine State. We have business-friendly tax policies, a diverse transportation network, and a plentiful labor force.

And, as they say, when is the last time you heard of a Floridian retiring and moving to North Dakota? Florida tax policy may not be perfect, but making exceptions to it for the benefit of high rollers at the expense of those who have been paying their full share of taxes for years is abundantly unfair.


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