Archive for Monday, February 23, 2004

Analysis: Sales tax law moves forward, despite attacks

February 23, 2004

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— Some merchants complained loudly last year about a new law changing how they calculate and collect retail sales taxes, arguing it would cost them -- and ultimately, consumers -- too much money.

The law requires merchants to collect taxes based on where their goods are delivered, meaning some must worry about dozens of rates and track sales in more detail than they ever have.

But in recent weeks, Department of Revenue officials have grown more confident that an increasing number of merchants accept the new law. Recent developments suggested legislative opposition could be fading.

Still, opponents of the law aren't giving up. The House Taxation Committee endorsed a bill last week that could effectively return Kansas to its previous sales tax policy.

"It's most assuredly not pointless," said House committee Chairman John Edmonds, R-Great Bend. "A lot of small businesses are very unhappy with this."

The new law inspired complaints because it reversed a decades-old policy used to determine how much tax a merchant added to each consumer's bill. Since the sales tax was first imposed in 1937, the rate to be imposed was the one in effect where a merchant's store was located.

Gov. Kathleen Sebelius supported the new law but last year declared an indefinite "grace period" for merchants.

Kansas imposes a 5.3 percent tax statewide, but cities and counties can impose their own. The state has 752 sales tax jurisdictions.

Supporters of the new law argue it will put the state in a position to collect taxes on Internet purchases and raise $100 million or more in additional revenues, should Congress allow such taxation in exercising its constitutional authority to regulate interstate commerce.

Yet critics of the new law still wonder why states are acting before Congress allows taxation of Internet purchases.

Some senators do not see critics getting much traction. Earlier this month, in debating an unrelated sales tax bill, the Senate rejected three proposed amendments dealing with the 2003 law.

Senators voted 24-15 against a proposal similar to the House bill, 26-14 against a proposal to repeal the 2003 law and 20-19 against a proposal to exempt businesses with less than $200,000 in annual sales.

Chairman Dave Corbin said he does not plan to have his Senate Assessment and Taxation Committee consider any bills dealing with the 2003 sales tax law.

"Why should I?" said Corbin, R-Towanda. "The Senate's voted and voiced its opinion, rather strongly."

In addition, Revenue Secretary Joan Wagnon said recently that her department is making services available online to help businesses calculate proper sales tax rates for individual addresses. The agency recently produced a paper guide for computer-less merchants.

Wagnon said the change significantly affected only 14,000 of the state's 100,000 retailers. The number still out of compliance is dwindling, she said, and she predicted the state would end its grace period July 1.

Edmonds remains undaunted and said that if the House passes a bill, he can make the 2003 law an issue in negotiations over any tax bill before the Legislature.

He said the department's efforts help merchants deal with the law, but added, "Making it better isn't the same as fixing it."

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