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Sales-Tax Modernization Could Fill PEIA Gap

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As online commerce has increased, the portion of sales taxes collected by West Virginia has declined. (Pixabay)
As online commerce has increased, the portion of sales taxes collected by West Virginia has declined. (Pixabay)
 By Dan HeymanContact
July 6, 2018

CHARLESTON, W. Va. – Modernizing the state sales tax is now possible, due to a U.S. Supreme Court decision – and it could help solve West Virginia's budget problems, including for the Public Employees Insurance Agency (PEIA).

The decision late last month in the case South Dakota v. Wayfair, Inc. means West Virginia can force internet retailers without a brick-and-mortar location in the state to pay sales tax, the same as in-state retailers.

According to Ted Boettner, executive director of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, one study found Amazon had been able to dodge billions of dollars in sales taxes that might now be collected.

"This is an issue of tax fairness; treat online retailers that are out-of-state the same as they treat brick-and-mortar stores in our communities," Boettner explained. "And not only would that make our tax code more fair, it would also bring in about $50 [million] to $100 million."

Most estimates are that PEIA needs at least a steady, new $50 million a year. But applying the state's 6 percent sales tax more broadly to include online sales would require the Legislature's approval – and the governor has said it might be considered a tax increase, which he is likely to oppose.

Online purchasers are supposed to voluntarily pay these taxes, although few have done so. The West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy has found the state is now collecting less sales tax revenue as a portion of all consumer spending than it did in the 1990s.

Boettner said meanwhile, the state cut deeply into support for higher education, and 20 towns and cities depend on their own local sales taxes.

He said modernizing the sales-tax system could patch some of those gaps, and listed a few: "The cash-strapped local governments, patching the hole in our public employees health insurance, and also, mitigating huge cuts to higher education that have put more debt on the backs of our students."

Boettner added that, if the state exempts smaller retailers, it wouldn't be difficult for the remaining large, online retailers to keep track of and send in those taxes.

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