Wayfair II: Congress strikes back

 
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Posted by Evan Piccirillo, CPA

In June of 2018, the Supreme Court rendered their Wayfair Decision, apparently giving states license to much more aggressively legislate sales tax laws for out-of-state vendors. With the longstanding and archaic physical presence standard seemingly abolished, states and their local jurisdictions were granted a method of increasing tax revenues without going through the unpopular process of raising tax rates, but instead increasing their tax base. What a concept!

Obviously, businesses dealing primarily in interstate retail sales were most upset to hear this news. Cost of compliance with respect to registering to do business and perpetually filing various tax returns in many jurisdictions can be burdensome. In addition, states might seek to retroactively impose tax on prior-period sales, opening an unanticipated floodgate of tax, penalties, and interest. Smaller businesses that lack the infrastructure to deal with these compliance matters are particularly vulnerable. Since sales and use taxes are “trust-fund” taxes and business owners can be held liable, the exposure for businesses in these areas could be crippling.

Arguably, the primary concern over the Wayfair decision is the uncertainty left in its wake. Some states have acted quickly to pass laws aiming to scoop up as much cash as possible as quickly as possible. Business aren’t sure if they should scramble to register now and begin filing returns and collecting sales tax or if they should take a wait-and-see approach.

Luckily for businesses, Congress has stepped in to save the day (you don’t hear that very often). A bipartisan bill with a good chance of passing was introduced in the house (you don’t hear that very often either) called the “Online Sales Simplicity and Small Business Relief Act.” What the bill lacks in naming creativity, it makes up for in substance. The bill seeks to clear up problems and provide structure and order left in the pandemonium created by the Court’s decision.

The bill sets a cut-off date for sales prior to June 21, 2018; no sale tax collection on transactions prior (which is the date the decision was rendered). It calls for a phase-in of compliance beginning in January of 2019. It also establishes a small business exemption for sellers with gross annual receipts of less than $10 million per year. Lastly, the bill seeks to compel states to work together to develop a “compact” that defines what gives rise to nexus and decreases the burden of compliance on taxpayers.

Hopefully this shred of sanity in such a chaotic time will survive our legislative process and become law. Either way, businesses that have out-of-state retail sales should take steps to identify potential exposure in applicable jurisdictions, paying special attention to those states that have already passed legislation that ignores the physical presence standard and act accordingly.