TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) _ Florida lawmakers took the first step Thursday toward joining the ongoing national battle to force online retailers to start collecting sales taxes.
A state Senate committee agreed to introduce a bill (SB 7206) that would require online retailers such as Amazon.com to collect the state's 6 percent sales tax if the retailer has a warehouse or provides commissions to Florida residents who direct customers to the website.
Those backing the bill say they aren't trying to generate more money for the state but that they are supporting it to help merchants in Florida who are losing out to online retailers that don't collect sales taxes.
“It's an issue of fairness,'' said Rick McAllister, president and CEO of the Florida Retail Federation told legislators. “It's not about the taxes collected. … We don't care what you do with the money, just don't get in the business of picking winners and losers in the marketplace.''
Floridians are supposed to pay taxes for online purchases, but there's no way to for the state to enforce the law unless the retailer has a physical presence in the state. Other states have tried to go after online retailers that have connections to in-state merchants, but those laws are being challenged in court.
The bill has the backing of business groups in the state, but could face an uphill battle.
Rep. Steve Precourt, R-Orlando and chairman of the House panel that deals with tax legislation, bluntly predicted this week that the House would not vote to raise taxes.
Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach and one of the main backers of the bill, is trying to sidestep the criticism that it would raise taxes. The legislation includes a requirement that the state hold sales tax holidays to return to taxpayers an amount equal to what's collected online. Studies have suggested as much as $800 million in local and state sales taxes are not being turned over.
Gov. Rick Scott has said he would be open to an online sales tax bill if it does not raise the overall tax burden on Floridians.
Representatives of Amazon.com have asked legislative leaders for a two-year exemption from any sales taxes in exchange for a promise to build two distribution centers and bring as many 3,000 jobs to the state. Amazon has made similar deals in other states including South Carolina.
Amazon's representatives have stressed that they would not bring the jobs without the tax break, which is opposed by Florida retailers.
McAllister told lawmakers that the online retailer will eventually have to create distribution centers in Florida. He predicted that the future of Internet sales will require online retailers to be able to deliver products to customers within one day.
“It's a long way from Alabama to Miami,'' he said. “They are going to come here.''