The US Senate moved Monday toward expected approval of a bill that would subject online retailers to state sales taxes, cutting a advantage that helped them steal business from brick and mortar stores.
The bill, the Marketplace Fairness Act, represents a long fought battle by local governments and businesses to collect taxes on Internet sales to local people by outside retailers like Amazon, eBay, and other online giants.
But it also raises operating challenges for Internet businesses, especially medium-sized ones, to begin collecting tax payments for state and local jurisdictions, wherever orders originate.
Senators voted a generous 74-20 to move to debate on the bill, which suggests an easy passage, despite a stiff lobbying fight to block or alter it from online retailing power eBay.
The bill would force online retailers to collect sales taxes on purchases made in states and localities even if the retailer is not physically present there.
A 1992 Supreme Court ruling has prevented states from compelling tax collection as long as the retailer lacks a physical presence in the state.
With combined state and local sales taxes adding as much as 10 percent to the price of a good, that has given online sellers a significant advantage to local shops.
Local shops then want the bill, as do states and local governments trying to rebuild finances after the deep 2008 recession by seeking out new sources of income.
The National Retail Federation, which represents physical retailers, estimates that $24 billion worth of taxes goes uncollected due to online sales.
"It's costing states and localities billions in lost revenue," said Republican bill sponsor, Wyoming Senator Mike Enzi. "Now is the time for Congress to act."
The bill would cover only retailers with more than $1 million in revenues from outside their physical base, an effort to alleviate the collection and filing burden collecting taxes from multiple jurisdictions would have on small businesses.
But the online giants Amazon and eBay have split over it. Amazon, which long fought local taxes, now has or will have a warehouses in so many areas that it backs the bill, if mainly to ensure its competitors do not have an advantage.
But eBay, the auction marketplace that is increasingly competing with amazon for direct sales of new consumer goods, over the weekend launched a broadside against the bill.
EBay chief executive John Donahoe told eBay members in an email that the bill threatened their business.
"Some lawmakers and large retailers want to impose more costs on you by mandating nationwide sales tax collection for your online business, whether you sell through eBay, other marketplaces or your own site," Donahoe said.
The White House strongly endorsed the bill, saying it "will level the playing field for local small business retailers that are in competition every day with large out-of-state online companies."
The influential anti-tax lobby Americans for Tax Reform issued a statement urging backers to fight the bill, saying it would extend the power of "money-hungry state legislators" to apply taxes outside their borders.
"The regulatory implications will span more than just internet based businesses."