Changing the Rules of the Game

September 1 will mark the end of an era, at least in Georgia anyway. This is the date that must begin collecting sales tax in Georgia. Some day you will wax nostalgic and regale your grandchildren with stories of how there was once a place where people could escape the clutches of intrusive government: the Internet. This was a place where anarchism reigned and yet everything worked without any rules or leaders. But slowly government began to stamp out the embers of this freedom bit by bit. First it was taxes, then it was privacy, and next it will likely be access. Internet license, please. As Nature abhors a vacuum, so too does government abhor freedom. Big Brother the busybody knows no boundaries. Big Brother demands his “piece of the action” in every transaction, no matter how small. Just as the mafia feels they have a right to a slice of any economic activity that occurs within their self-proclaimed “territory” so too does government operate upon an identical principal.

So how is it that this has come to pass in Georgia? Has Congress managed to stealthily pass the “Tax Fairness Act”? Fortunately no. This current state of affairs is the result of Georgia House Bill 386 passed on March 20, 2012. This bill follows the Orwellian mantra that if conventional definitions of words aren’t working for you, then simply write new definitions. This bill redefines a term called “nexus” in order to dragoon Amazon and similar entities into becoming uncompensated tax collectors for the state of Georgia. Nexus is a tax term which means “a connection” i.e. if a company has a physical presence (office, warehouse, employees, equipment, etc) then they are said to have a connection to the state sufficiently similar to a resident so as to make them liable for the same taxes a resident would be liable for. But this bill has now turned that definition on its head by broadening the term to the point where merely having a business relationship with an entity in Georgia will confer “nexus” upon the foreign entity. It is hard to see how those who voted for this bill did not recognize the perverse incentive buried within it, namely that companies outside of Georgia will choose to NOT establish any business dealings with companies inside Georgia lest they become entangled with the Georgia Department of Revenue.

As if loss of business opportunities and higher taxes wasn’t bad enough, it gets even worse. Nexus and residency have always had a common shared characteristic: physical presence. Not anymore. Now that nexus is based on the most ephemeral of connections to the state how long is it until the residency definition undergoes a similar metamorphosis? If the two are indeed linked in their common purpose of establishing tax liability, then a change in one will invariably result in a change in the other. Therefore Georgia may one day establish that residents of other states are also in fact Georgia “residents” for purposes of income tax. Once that precedent comes to pass then what is to stop others states from likewise inflicting such taxes upon Georgians? Perhaps some day you’ll get an income tax notice from Florida because you vacationed there once. “You enjoyed the generous state benefits of roads and municipal services while here, so certainly you should be paying your fair share” will be the justification. Each blow of the precedential ax upon the tree of freedom accumulates damage until finally one day that tree is felled.

Naturally this new sales tax collection is being heralded by the economically illiterate as a boon for the “brick and mortar” stores. The initiation of sales tax collection will have ZERO effect on expanding local sales in Georgia. Why? People aren’t ordering on line to avoid a few bucks in taxes. They are ordering online because it is convenient. The lack of sales tax is just a perk. Removing that perk is not going to change people’s behavior. It is however going to reduce what people can spend to the tune of $16 million. This will only harm the individual as well as local businesses they are already shopping at. Increased taxes reduce the individual’s capacity to spend – everywhere. This is supposed to help the economy?