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Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Taxing (or Not Taxing) Services is Wrong Focus - How to Improve Sales Tax

The sales tax, used by almost all states, is a consumption tax. Generally, consumption is what the final consumer does.  For example, a company manufactures paper, a greeting card company purchases some of that paper to make greeting cards and sells them to the final consumer or to a distributor who sells them to the final consumer. As the paper or cards move through this supply chain, a sales tax exemption for items purchased for resale prevents sales tax from being charged. The final consumer is the only one who pays sales tax when the card is purchased (reaches the end of the supply chain).

Supply chains and tax systems are not always this "simple" though because not everything a business buys is directly for resale.  A recent case in Kansas found that electricity purchased by Southwestern Bell Telephone, Co. LLC (No. 120,167 (2020)) to help in the delivery of telecommunications services was exempt from sales tax because it was used in this production. A lot of time and effort though went into the determination of whether Southwestern Bell owed sales tax.

A simpler approach is possible and is really part of a proper sales tax system. This approach is that businesses should not pay sales tax on any of their purchases; only the final consumer should pay sales tax.

The Kansas case is just one of many decided every year in addition to ones settled on audit and dealt with by sellers in determining if they should be charging sales tax to a customer. This is a lot of wasted time given that the sales tax should be just on the final consumer. This required element of a sales tax avoids "pyramiding" in the system which occurs when a business pays sales tax and factors that into the price it charges customers leading to tax charged on tax.

There are annual discussions in many state legislatures and by taxpayers and industry associations about not imposing sales tax on services. I think the better focus is on changing the law to tax a broad base of consumption (including services except perhaps for some medical services) and only charging the tax to the final consumer.

This is how a value-added tax (VAT) works. In a pure VAT system (one without lots of exemptions or special rates), everyone pays VAT on all purchases. If that buyer is a business, they get their VAT back. This helps ensure collection by collecting the tax throughout the supply chain. It also prevents the need for a seller to accept an exemption certification from a business buyer and then be liable for the sales tax if it turns out the certificate is invalid.

Will this system work? In theory. In reality, states rely on sales tax paid by businesses so it is hard to replace. But I think a gradual shift to broaden the base, such as to include digital goods that are equivalent of taxable tangible goods (such as iTunes and digital books), entertainment, and personal services will help. Also, not including business purchases in the expansion of the sales tax base. AND, it is important to lower the rate so this is not a tax increase but a tax system improvement effort to make it function better today and in the future. It will also avoid the eroding sales tax base that affects many states today, such as technology allows us to buy non-taxable digital versions of what was previously a taxable tangible purchase (books is a good example).

So, let's eliminate time spent arguing for sales tax exemptions for businesses and expanding tax bases to include more services and instead pursue:

  • Prohibiting any sales tax base expansion from applying to items purchased by business (so as not to make the existing pyramiding problem worse).
  • Expanding the sales tax base to cover all final consumption with very few exemptions, while lowering the rate. 
What do you think?

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