Gov. Norm Bangerter, like other governors nationwide, is tired of his state's residents buying products by mail and avoiding sales tax charges.
The state Tax Commission estimates Utah lost $17.8 million in sales taxes in fiscal 1987, the last year figures were available, because of state residents buying products elsewhere.Governors nationwide, joined by state legislators and mayors, are urging Congress to overturn a 22-year-old Supreme Court decision and require large mail-order companies to collect sales taxes on sales to out-of-state customers.
The National Governors Association, the National League of Cities and other government organizations are supporting a bill to require large companies to collect tax on shipments to any state in which they regularly solicit business.
"I am extremely supportive of the bill," Bangerter said Thursday. "I have been interested in this issue for a long time and do support the concept."
Bud Scruggs, Bangerter's chief of staff, said, "You saw how much the governor wanted to give a $19 million tax decrease this year. We could be collecting that much more."
Bangerter is to fly to Washington, D.C., next week for a meeting of the executive committee of the National Association of Governors. The item is sure to come up.
"This is the No. 1 fiscal issue among governors," Scruggs said. "Every state loses some money on this, and it's not fair to our local retailers."
Nationwide, states, cities and counties are losing more than $1.5 billion a year in tax revenue. State officials say the mail-order businesses are hurting local merchants who are required to charge sales tax.
Utah has a "use tax" line on its income tax forms where taxpayers are to list taxes due on out-of-state mail order or phone purchases. Most people leave the line blank, and the state has no way of learning who is telling the truth.
"So far this year we've collected only $68,000 from the use tax," said Lee Shaw, Tax Commission spokesman.
But opponents of the proposal held a news conference in Washington on Wednesday to warn that consumers won't put up with it.
"This will have the maximum irritation effect on tens of millions of consumers who would have to do the tax calculations every time they order," said Robert Levering, vice president of the Direct Marketing Association.
Sen. Robert W. Kasten Jr., R-Wis., whose state is home to Land's End, a large mail-order clothing company, added that the bill "unfairly targets the elderly, the handicapped, farm families and the millions of consumers who rely on mail-order purchases for many of their basic needs."
The bill appears to have no formal opposition in Utah. "We can't stand to lose any more tax money. We need every penny we can get," said Jack Olson, director of the Utah Taxpayers Association, a watchdog group.
The Supreme Court held in 1967 that a company could not be required to collect sales taxes on purchases from an out-of-state company unless that company had a retail outlet in the state.
Sears and J.C. Penney, for example, collect sales taxes on catalog orders because they have retail stores in every state. But Land's End collects no tax on out-of-state shipments because it has no other outlets.
The bill is sponsored by Rep. Jack Brooks, D-Texas, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. It would apply only to the estimated 5 percent of mail-order outlets whose sales exceed $12.5 million a year. But those 5 percent account for 70 percent of mail-order sales.
Similar legislation stalled last year, and opponents, led by the Direct Marketing Association, are geared up for the renewed battle.