The Haines Borough Assembly passed an ordinance to amend borough code this week. The code now reflects a recent supreme court decision that opens the door for local governments to collect taxes from certain online retailers.
Amazon was one of the online vendors that surprised Alaskans by charging local tax last winter. That was a response to A recent supreme court decision that says online retailers could be responsible for collecting and remitting local sales tax.
“The Wayfair decision sort of changed the landscape for sales tax collection,” said Jila Stuart, the Haines Borough Finance Director. Most states have a sales tax and a single statewide administrator. But Alaska doesn’t have a statewide sales tax; it has over 100 municipalities that make their own rules.
“We don’t all have to have the same rate we don’t even all have to have the same exemptions,” Staurt said.
Alaska Municipal League started an initiative where local governments can opt in to be part of a streamlined taxing organization that would represent the whole state. They’re doing that because part of the W ayfair decision says that online retailers don’t have to pay the tax if its an undue burden.
Without the streamlined system, an online retailer might have to interact with each municipality in Alaska to figure out taxes. The Alaska Municipal League’s idea is that online would only talk to one state representative. That way, online retailers would be more likely to participate in tax gathering.
“If, for example, a municipality were going to have an exemption for a veterinarian, there would be a standard exemption and you would opt in or opt out,” she explained.
Last week, Haines was among more than 30 communities that met with the Alaska Municipal League in Anchorage to find solutions.
“From many governments’ perspectives, these are current taxes that aren’t being paid,” said Nils Andreassen, the executive director of the Alaska Municipal League. He says a lot of municipalities are working to do what Haines did—to clarify code so they can lawfully collect taxes from online retailers.
“So one of the reasons to move forward with online sales tax collection and remittance is because right now there’s not a level playing field between local shop owners or storefront who have to pay a local sales tax and Amazon, an online retailer.”
So the local benefits are two-fold: additional income means more funding for local services, and making online retailers collect sales tax makes local retailers more competitive.
But Andreassen says some communities are concerned that a centralized state tax authority means they may get left out or lose local control. He says to think of that body as a resource, not an enforcer.
“I’m not an expert on this, so there’s a lot of variation and a lot left to be interpreted. And for sales tax administrators they need to be very specific in what’s taxable.,” he said.
Initially, Alaska Municipal League thought that municipalities would have to change local exemptions and adopt a statewide standard. That won’t be necessary—they can invest in software that manages those details. But they do need to agree on definitions for taxable and exempt goods.
That’s where local governments will need to work together, and where a statewide tax group will be useful. Andreassen says the software will take some time to develop, but he expects to see some resolution to the online tax question in the next year.