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Senate wants to tax your online shopping and Netflix-binge habits #InternetFreedomAct

The intent of the Internet-related legislation is to keep states from enacting new taxes on Internet access. However, the Senate is proposing an Act that would give states the option to tax “remote businesses” i.e. online retailers selling within states’ borders.

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Keeping states from enacting Internet taxes

The inclusion of the Internet Tax Freedom Act (ITFA) in the Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act of 2015 had shown some promise when we reported on this critical moratorium a few weeks ago. The intent of the Internet-related legislation is to keep states from enacting new taxes on Internet access.

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However, the Senate removed the supporting language from the trade bill and included it instead in the omnibus spending package that passed both the House and Senate on December 18, 2015.

Senate proposing tax for online retailers

The moratorium on new taxes for Internet access has been extended until October 2016. While the White House has shown support for the legislation, through the President’s repeated statements in support of net neutrality, it’s the Senate that is prolonging the stopgap. Specifically, U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R – Tenn.), who also wants a vote on the Marketplace Fairness Act, of which he is the lead co-sponsor.

The Act would give states the option to tax “remote businesses” i.e. online retailers selling within states’ borders.

Interestingly enough, the White House has been in favor of Alexander’s legislation, with an endorsement via former White House press secretary Jay Carney as reported by The Hill in this 2013 article. Carney spoke then on “the need for federal legislation to level the playing field for our businesses and address sales tax fairness.”

Leveling the playing field

The debate stems from the impact to various parties from consumers to retailers. The legislators in support of a remote business tax have stated that the law will create a level playing field for brick and mortar retailers, providing much needed revenue to states in need.

The opposing view believes that consumers will bear the cost through discriminatory taxes at the state and local levels.

Taxing your Netflix-binge habit

The concern about discriminatory taxes seems well-founded with Chicago’s July 1, 2015 creation of the 9% “amusement tax” that affects entertainment both in person and electronic delivery. Charges are required to be paid for the privileges of “watching electronically delivered television shows, movies or video,” as well as “listening to electronically delivered music” and “participating in games, online or otherwise.”

The code states that the amusement tax applies only to rentals, and not “permanent” downloads. This local ordinance mostly impacts streaming online services including iTunes, Netflix and Hulu.

Amazon calls for streaming tax

Interestingly, online sales giant Amazon has long supported this legislation as evidenced by this 2013 article from The Hill, stating that “Amazon argues that a single national framework for tax collection is preferable to a patchwork of state laws.” Amazon’s greatest online rivals including eBay and Overstock who don’t have a physical presence in the number of states that Amazon does.

Amazon has been collecting sales taxes in those states where they have a physical presence, including Illinois as of February 1, 2015, and Michigan on October 1, 2015.

On an intriguing side note, former Obama administration press secretary Jay Carney was hired by Amazon in February of 2015 as senior vice president of global corporate affairs.

His position includes oversight of public policy and public relations.

Streaming tax goes largely unreported in state returns

In states that require state income tax returns, consumers have been required to self-report that tax. According to this Detroit Free Press article, Michigan state officials estimated that “only 2.5% of what was really due” was reported for untaxed online purchases in the 2013 tax returns.

States’ rights vs. Net neutrality

Whether Senator Alexander holds true to his principles of the past or will sacrifice net neutrality for states’ rights will play out over the next ten months. Keep in mind that Alexander stated in these remarks from November 7, 2003, on the Internet Tax Moratorium of  “no taxation of Internet access” and that “virtually all of us are willing to keep state and local governments from taxing Internet access.“

Many economists are skeptical, and even accusing Alexander as well as Senate Democrat whip Dick Durbin of holding the ITFA hostage for the sake of their own agendas. National Review economist Stephen Moore pointed out the hypocrisy of some of Durbin’s statements in his article. “… Now the man who says the Internet should be universally available and affordable hypocritically wants to tax it to make it less affordable. The primary victims, if Senator Durbin’s eleventh-hour tax gambit succeeds, will be poor households…”

Indeed, having access to the Internet has moved well beyond being a luxury to being a convenience for all users, regardless of their income and tax bracket.

#InternetTaxFreedomAct

Debbie Cerda is a seasoned writer and consultant, running Debra Cerda Consulting as well as handling business development at data-driven app development company, Blue Treble Solutions. She's a proud and active member of Austin Film Critics Association and the American Homebrewers Association, and Outreach Director for science fiction film festival, Other Worlds Austin. She has been very involved in the tech scene in Austin for over 15 years, so whether you meet her at Sundance Film Festival, SXSWi, Austin Women in Technology, or BASHH, she'll have a connection or idea to help you achieve business success. At the very least, she can recommend a film to watch and a great local craft beer to drink.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Anakai

    February 29, 2016 at 7:57 pm

    I guess that Constitution thingy that all those guys like to love on so much suddenly becomes irrelevant when it comes to picking your pocket.

    Section 1, Article 9.5:
    “No tax or duty shall be laid on Articles exported from any State.”

    Reading is evidently not a required skill for electing people to positions of authority that control millions of people.

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Pier 1 couldn’t weather the storm so they’re shutting all ports for good

(BUSINESS NEWS) Pier 1 was already on the verge of closing last year, and if we know anything about 2020, I think you know where I’m going with this.

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As the world keeps turning and we adjust to our new normal here in the ol’ US of A, we are beginning to see what the new shopping skyline will be like, and it will be missing some well-known high rises.

Pier 1, the noted home décor retailer, has announced that they have received approvals to shut down and liquidate all retail operations in its ~550 remaining stores as well as its e-commerce operations.

In the last few years, the company has seen a decline in their market due to heavy hitters like Target and Walmart as well as online competitors. The company which had reached up to 1000 stores had been forced to strip down to half that.

In February of this year Pier 1 filed for bankruptcy protection while it attempted to find a buyer for its remaining assets. The ultimate plan to keep the company afloat was unfortunately doomed to failure. The coup de grace occurred during the global pandemic. Pier 1, just like thousands of stores across the country, was forced to shut down all of their stores. But their main competitors were able to keep the doors open, and taking advantage of the “essential” aspects of their grocery items.

With buyers hesitating to jump into the deep end during COVID-19 the CEO & CFO Robert Riesback announced that “ultimately, due to the combination of a challenging retail environment and the new reality and uncertainty of a post-COVID world, the company and its advisers determined that an orderly wind-down is the best way to maximize the value of Pier 1’s assets”.

With all of these events, their petition to the courts was streamlined, and they asked the federal judge to close the Pier 1 brand “as soon as reasonably possible”. The final plans for the company’s assets are in place, intellectual property and e-commerce business is due to be sold in July, and all store locations to be closed as soon as feasibly possible.

The liquidation sales have already started around the nation. Playing off the need for change that most of the quarantined are experiencing, the company is hitting ~$20M in sales per week as people are reaching for those items that they may never see again. While it may be the last stand it’s definitely going out with a bang. After 58 years on the market Pier 1 is leaving behind a unique view point, and will most definitely not be going into the grave alone.

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Reopening the nation: Best done by sector or calendar?

(BUSINESS NEWS) Analysis suggests reopening economies in phases in each country. How will we find harmony between economic, epidemiological, and political leaders?

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After months indoors Americans are eager to reopen the economy. The United States has experimented with a series of stay-at-home orders, lockdowns, and quarantines (the difference between these strategies being geographical and frankly, not always clear). However, the movement to stay home started with closed borders and reduced travel, and gradually became more restrictive as America fell in step behind other countries just in time to become the world’s hotspot for coronavirus infections.

After fraught disagreement between economists, scientists, and politicians, only a few things are certain to date: the economy has collapsed, 30 million people have lost jobs, more than 1.6 million people have been infected, and nearly 100,000 people have died as of this writing.*

Conversations have shifted from saving lives to saving both lives and livelihoods. Economists are making the case that a contracted economy magnifies health risks, and therefore potential mortality unrelated to or complementary to COVID-19 deaths. As such, it is time to consider various strategies for reopening the economy as a public health strategy not independent of hygienic and other measures.

Seven mostly friendly-looking suited-up white dudes from the University of Lausanne in Switzerland have analyzed a series of reopening strategies for the world to consider at this confusing, scary, and still uncertain juncture of how to proceed with defibrillating closed economies worldwide.

They concluded that a phased reopening by sector would balance the need to stimulate economic activity while minimizing epidemiological risk. They suggest that the order of sectors to reopen in each country should be chosen based on their inability to conduct core business from home, importance to the national economy, value added per worker, and business viability. You can read their full argument and the other strategies they evaluated here.

“This strategy has the virtue of being adaptive — as data is gathered following each sector-wide reopening, adjustments can be made concerning the timing of subsequent phases, and protective measures adopted in previously released sectors can be copied and improved as more is learned about the epidemic,” the team said.

The United States has already begun a regional reopening approach where Trump conceded that the states would determine their own reopening plans in phases. This strategy has already caused tension between states and municipalities (for example as between the large state of Texas and its highly populated capitol Austin).

Though the HBR argument is compelling, again, we find ourselves at a frustrating clash of experts in their fields. No matter how the economy is reopened, an increase in infections is likely if not inevitable as soon as more people return to a high-contact lifestyle – a point that scientists and epidemiologists have emphasized heavily. It also gives no mention of the role of testing and tracking the spread of the disease, and the path to population-level immunity whether by herd or vaccine.

Furthermore, this economic approach appears not to consider complementary supply chains and the interconnectedness of local, national, and global economies. Limiting travel was a key factor in slowing the spread and allowing control to become more localized, but much of the economy relies on the movement of people and things across communities.

Unfortunately, these decisions are ultimately made at the policy level. The United States government has proven itself incapable of a united approach to stemming the severity of this disease. Vaccines are in development, but it seems likely that when one is selected and approved for mass distribution, the decision will also be a political one. All of these considerations are ones Americans should bring to the ballot box in November. Or rather – to the mailbox with an absentee ballot, if we don’t manage to completely destroy our democracy between now and then.

*Such statistics, though widely cited, may be underreported or misrepresentative of the whole picture, as we learned about artificially deflated test rates in Texas last week.

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Survey indicates that small businesses are optimistic despite COVID-19

(BUSINESS NEWS) Facebook survey captures tumult of spring 2020 on small and medium business, with a dash of optimism going into the summer.

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This story contains information that probably will not evoke shock and awe by now, but is nonetheless upsetting. Stop now and check to see if you need a news cycle break before ingesting more garbage depressive news about the economy – but if you can wade through it, I promise it ends on a high note!

Though Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is running amuck in the political world like one of those signs at restaurants that say “unattended children will be given ice cream and a puppy,” Facebook continues to effectively build an online community of more than 2.6 billion people worldwide – including more than half of the population in the United States. Given their audience and ease of access to business owners, they decided to use their powers for good for once to survey small and medium businesses.

The survey returned responses from 38,078 business owners and managers, 39,104 employees, and 8,694 personal enterprises in the United States (total of 85,876 respondents). Respondents’ industries spanned manufacturing, retail, services, logistics, hospitality, construction, and agriculture. Thirty-three percent of businesses were urban, forty-two percent were urban, and twenty-five percent were rural.

Here’s where it gets depressing: thirty-one percent of businesses reported closing in the last three months, with 71 percent of those closing since March 1. For personal businesses, 52 percent are closed. Of those businesses still operating, 60 percent reported a reduced workload, and 60 percent also report struggling with finances. Employee wages, bills, and rent were the top areas of financial concern.

So how is this important segment of the economy surviving the crisis? Forty-one percent of business owners and managers said they could pull from personal savings, but 45 percent said zero-interest loans were the most helpful option to subsidize lost business.

Unsurprisingly, 79% of businesses say they have made some change to operations to accommodate their customers and keep things moving, like using digital tools and delivery services.

The survey found some interesting geographical differences, for example, that businesses in the Southeast have made slightly more physical adjustments to business like offering curbside pickup and home delivery. They also found differences in strategy by leadership gender: “Businesses led by women are more likely to be using digital tools, particularly with online advertising (43%) and digital payment tools (40%), compared to just 37% and 34%, respectively, of businesses led by men.” And the differences don’t stop at the strategic level. More women owner-managers (33%) reported that managing life in a pandemic at home was affecting their ability to focus on work than men (25%).

Amongst all the chaos, people are optimistic about the future. In fact, 57% of owner-managers are optimistic or extremely optimistic about the future of business. For employees, the results were surprisingly similar. Even though only 45% of SMB owner-managers and 32% of personal businesses reported that they would rehire the same workers when their businesses reopened, 59% of both the employed and unemployed were at least somewhat optimistic about their future employment.

And now for a quote from President Barack Obama’s 2008 New Hampshire Primary speech amidst our last recession, without a smidge of tacky irony or liberal preaching: “We’ve been warned against offering the people of this nation false hope. But in the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope. For when we have faced down impossible odds; when we’ve been told we’re not ready, or that we shouldn’t try, or that we can’t, generations of Americans have responded with a simple creed that sums up the spirit of a people: ‘Yes we can.’”

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