A Big Fish May Slip the Net

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Last year, Illinois bucked the national trend and voted for a very leftist governor — Pat Quinn, who had assumed the governorship in 2009 after Rod Blagojevich was impeached and removed from office.

Despite winning by only a narrow margin, Quinn has governed as any devout leftist would. He has pushed wind and solar initiatives, signed a law eliminating the death penalty, and increased taxes like crazy. In the face of a $15 billion budget deficit, he raised the personal income tax from 3% to 5%, and increased corporate taxes from 4.8% to 7%. He also instituted a sales tax on internet sales (the “Amazon tax”). Businesses let it be known that they would consider leaving the state if his tax increases passed, but he went ahead anyway, laughing in their faces.

Now businesses may get the last laugh. They are indeed beginning to leave. Especially illustrative is the recent announcement by the CME Group that it is "evaluating” whether to move some operations to other states. It is currently in talks with Florida, Tennessee, and Texas. What do these states have in common? Hmm . . . let me think. Wait . . . Oh, I know. They don’t have state income taxes, and they are notoriously pro-business.

CME is a pretty big fish. It is the parent company of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, the Chicago Board of Trade, and the New York Mercantile Exchange (which includes COMEX, the New York Commodity Exchange). With 2,300 employees and revenues of between $2 and $3 billion, CME would be a real loss to Illinois’ economy if it departed. But Illinois would, quite frankly, deserve it.

As for Quinn, he probably doesn't care. He probably expects that if Obama passes another “stimulus” bill, money will be shoveled Chicago’s way — in the Chicago way.




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Taxing the Ether

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Here’s the instinctive mindset of the Democratic Party: “If it moves, tax it. If it doesn’t, tax it even more.” If you need proof, consider the frantic attempts by desperate Democrat governors in high-tax states to tax commerce conducted on the internet.

One story about this comes out of California, notoriously one of the most economically ignorant and fiscally incontinent states in the nation. It appears in a Los Angeles Times editorial lauding the efforts of Democrats in the state legislature to try to apply California’s outrageously high sales taxes — nearly 11%, counting state and localities together — to purchases on the internet, targeting especially the dominant internet retail giant Amazon.com. The LAT (always an affirming voice for redistributionist tax-and-spend government) argues that the state is “owed” millions in tax dollars for sales over the net. The paper, natch, supports a bill by Berkeley Dem Nancy Skinner to require internet retailers to collect sales taxes.

The LATviews this as fair — what is the difference, it asks, between buying your shoes at the local store and purchasing them at a store based in Nevada? And, the rag pompously avers, this is the law.

It cites the 1992 Supreme Court ruling (Quill Corp. v. North Dakota) that held that out-of-state mail-order companies (and presumably, by inference, internet retailers) with no physical presence (i.e., no actual stores or warehouses) in a state could not be compelled to collect sales taxes from customers in that state — although the court allowed states to try to collect taxes from such customers directly. So this is the law.

According to the LA Times, people who buy over the internet are both legally and morally (morally?) obligated to pay sales taxes on their purchases. It argues that Amazon and other online stories deliberately encourage consumers to evade their legal and moral obligation by failing to inform them of that obligation on their websites. Not only must the internet help to suck in taxes; it must also lecture people about their ethics.

In an effort to grab more taxes — as opposed to cutting spending — Gov. Quinn cost his state jobs.

The LAT not only endorses legislation that would require any internet company to collect sales taxes from purchases by Californian customers if that company has any affiliates (suppliers) in the state; it also recommends a national bill that would explicitly require all internet companies to collect sales taxes on half of all states that want their citizens’ purchases taxed—and which of them wouldn’t? The LATconcedes that so long as the Republicans have a check in Congress, such a bill won’t ever be passed, but the grand vision is of every vendor of five-dollar trinkets to become an IRS agency, assiduously divvying up its surplus value in accordance with the 50 tax codes of the 50 states, plus Puerto Rico, Guam, and the District of Columbia.

At the time the LAT piece was published, rumors were circulating out of Sacramento that the state Board of Equalization — the agency responsible for collecting California state taxes — would be hiring computer geeks to find out ways of looking at internet traffic to discover which criminal Californians are daring to buy on the web. This, needless to say, caused considerable consternation—not to mention considerable concern about the morals of internet aficionados who would thus be involved in killing the internet.

But the LAT’s case is patently defective. Why the devil should a business like Amazon, which uses none of California’s police or fire services (since it has no bricks-and-mortar locations in the state), much less its educational enterprises, have to pay the state a nickel? And why should Amazon customers within the state have to pay any more than they do right now? They already support the schools with their property taxes. Their sales taxes, collected at the stores that actually exist within the state, support the police, the fire department, and the other agencies that protect those stores. Where does one’s moral and legal obligation stop?

And the consequences from trying to tax the internet are likely to be counterproductive to the states that do it, as a piece in the Wall Street Journal reports. The WSJ — which understands economics approximately a thousand times better than the LAT understands it — points out the obvious: if a state (like California) tries to saddle (say) Amazon with collecting sales taxes for that state because Amazon has affiliates within it, then Amazon will just drop those affiliates.

Indeed, as the WSJ piece recounts, this is just what happened recently in Illinois (a state in even worse fiscal shape than California, if that be possible). The tax-happy Democratic Governor Pat Quinn signed a law applying the state sales tax to internet purchases in Illinois, and it took Amazon only a few hours to announce that it was immediately halting purchases from and affiliation with the 9,000 small Illinois businesses with which it had been doing business — business profitable for Illinois as well as for Amazon.

So, in an effort to grab more taxes — as opposed to cutting spending — Quinn cost his state jobs. Either a discontinued affiliate will stay in Illinois and see its sales plummet (which will then necessitate cutting its workforce), or it will — as some are already doing — move to an adjacent state (such as Indiana) that manifests less tax madness.

Rhode Island, which like Illinois and a few other states (Colorado, New York, and North Carolina), had earlier passed an “Amazon tax bill,” has collected only peanuts in extra sales tax revenues. A study by the Tax Foundation shows that when you factor in the lost jobs from affiliates cutting back, closing down, or moving away, the state probably lost revenue.

The LAT editorial suggested that to prevent internet companies from dumping affiliates in a state that imposes an Amazon tax, what we need is a federal law forcing all internet companies, wherever located, to collect taxes from all customers, wherever located, and remit those funds to the customers’ respective states.

That insipid argument is based on the absurd premise that if we pass a national Amazon tax, Amazon couldn’t drop all of its national affiliates. But it sure as hell could, and just move its central operations to (say) Mexico and all its affiliations to businesses in other countries. That would be yet another example of government greed, triumphant.




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Federalism in Action

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The greatly imperiled traditional view of federalism has it that among the other mechanisms for the balancing (and hence constraining) of powers in our government, the states require substantial power to balance that of the federal government.

One of the benefits of federalism is that it allows the various states to experiment. If Texas wants to try fiscal discipline while California engages in fiscal incontinence, the rest of the states can watch and judge which fiscal policy is most productive of wealth and happiness for citizens generally.

We see this happening now before our very eyes, as most of the states grapple with budget deficits. Different states are pursuing different policies.

We see, for example, Illinois jamming through a two-thirds hike in personal income taxes and a nearly 50% rise in state corporate taxes to deal with its budget deficit. But in Georgia, a bipartisan tax commission has recommended to the state legislature that it cut its personal and corporate tax rates from the present 6% down to only 4%. As one of the commission members — economist Christine Ries of Georgia Tech — put it, “Our over-riding goal was to get the income tax rate down as low as possible, because the evidence is so clear that this is the biggest driver of growth and jobs.” The commission proposes to cover the tax loss by expanding the application of Georgia’s 4% sales tax to many purchases (such as groceries) now exempt from it.

Shifting corporate and personal income tax to consumption tax seems like an economic no-brainer if you want to encourage the creation of jobs, although as the Wall Street Journal notes,the logical thing would be for Georgia to eliminate the income tax altogether (as nearby Florida and Texas have done).

Again, it is nice to be able to contrast the behavior of, say, California with Utah. Newly-installed California Jerry Brown, the aging Moonbeam whose original decision (1978) to let public employees unionize and collectively bargain was a major reason for the state’s massive overspending today, and who owes his election to massive spending by those same unions, has proposed a plan to deal with the state’s budget deficit. It calls for dramatic increases in taxes and some cuts in spending, but does nothing to address the ridiculously bloated salaries and pensions that state employees receive. He intends to use the prospect of cuts in services to cow the citizens into raising taxes.

This is the typical statist ploy: threaten cuts in public service to get what you really want, which is always more taxes, while leaving the underlying problem (ballooning compensation and pensions for government workers) untouched. At least the miserable Governor Schwarzenegger tried, at the beginning of his regime, to address the public employee pension problem, by floating an initiative that would have put all new hires on defined contribution plans (such as 401k), before being whipped into a girly-liberal by the public employee unions.

Illinois is another case of the statist response to the pension crisis. Governor Pat Quinn, just a month before the November election and in the face of a huge state budget deficit, gave the public employee unions a guaranteed two years of no layoffs and even cost of living increases. With their support he squeaked through to reelection. After winning, he jammed through massive tax increases.

Now, Utah has taken a different tack. The state pension plan was fully funded back in 2007, but suddenly, by 2009, it fell to only 70% funded, meaning that the state faced a pension funding gap of $6.5 billion. This gap was one and a half times the debt allowed by the state constitution. But the constitution makes changing the pension plans of current workers virtually impossible.

So the Utah legislature made a reasonable choice, under the circumstances. It set up a defined contribution plan for all hires, starting this year, the state donating a generous 10% of the employee’s salary. The plan allows employees a defined benefit option — but again, the state’s contribution is capped at 10%.

For workers, the nice thing about the plan is that they have a fully portable plan, and one whose assets they own personally, so they can’t be “borrowed” by government and used to buy votes in the way that Social Security funds are, or appropriated by a union and used to buy politicians.

The nice thing for taxpayers is that this plan will eventually cost them only about half what the old system would. It shields them from having to cover the costs of any future stock market declines.

Legislatures in Montana and a dozen other states are looking at this model.

That, dear reader, is truly federalism in action.




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