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Politics / Issues
Get the latest coverage of the 2021 Florida legislative session in Tallahassee from our coverage partners and WUSF.

Plan To Tax Online Purchases Gets Support In Florida Senate

Joe Gruters listening during a meeting
News Service of Florida
Sen. Joe Gruters proposal requires online businesses with no physical presence in Florida to collect sales taxes when customers in Florida make purchases.

Florida business groups have argued for years that retailers in the state are at a competitive disadvantage because out-of-state businesses aren’t collecting sales taxes.

An effort to require out-of-state online retailers to collect sales taxes on purchases made by Floridians advanced Thursday in the Senate as economists project the move could bring in more than $1 billion a year in revenue.

But as the Senate Finance and Tax Committee voted to support the proposal (SB 50), sponsor Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, said efforts are underway to balance the increased tax collections against other funding sources to make the change “revenue neutral.”

“We're going to add some tax relief into this bill,” Gruters, who also serves as chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, said. “We may not get all the way to being completely revenue neutral, which we'll make sure that's clear. But, however, with a $1.3 billion potential advantage, there'll be a lot to go around.”

Before the meeting, a panel known as the state Revenue Estimating Conference projected the bill would increase state general revenue by $937.6 million next fiscal year, with the amount increasing to $1.08 billion in the following years. Local governments across the state would collectively see revenue go up $229.5 million next fiscal year and by $253.7 million the following year.

Gruters suggested one offset could be through lowering a 5.5 percent sales tax on rent collected from commercial properties --- a tax business groups have long criticized. The bill will next go to the Senate Appropriations Committee and could be heard by the full Senate after the annual legislative session starts March 2.

Currently, retailers that have a physical presence in Florida must collect and remit sales taxes for items sold in the state. The bill seeks to also put the responsibility for collecting and remitting taxes on retailers that don’t have such a presence but are selling products to Floridians.

Florida business groups have argued for years that Florida retailers are at a competitive disadvantage because out-of-state businesses aren’t collecting the sales taxes. But fears about the proposed change being considered a new tax on consumers has stymied efforts to pass it.

Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, said Thursday he thinks Gruters’ bill is “very important.”

“I see this as a fairness issue,” he said.

Through what is sort of an honor system, Florida residents are supposed to submit sales taxes when they are not collected by out-of-state retailers. But few Floridians comply with that requirement.

Sen. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, called the proposed change “a smart move,” as the state faces a budget shortfall in the upcoming fiscal year because of economic damage caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Lawmakers will craft a budget for the 2021-2022 fiscal year during the legislative session.

But Sen. Lori Berman, D-Delray Beach, expressed concerns about plans to offset the increase in potential revenue.

“We are in a crisis right now,” Berman said. “We have a lot of social services that we're talking about having to make cuts. And this is a time when people are truly in dire circumstances. So, I'd like to make sure that the vast majority of this increase, the increase that we'll be collecting under the tax that's already in existence, will go to social services.”

Sen. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, and Sen. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estro, voiced support for Gruters offsetting the increase with a reduction in the commercial rent tax, which lawmakers have been chipping away at for several years.

Hooper said the exchange would be “another way to help strengthen our brick-and-mortar stores.”

As consumers have shifted to buying more products online during the pandemic, the potential amount of tax revenue from making the change has increased. When a similar proposal went before lawmakers in 2020, a staff analysis projected the change would generate $479 million for the state government and $132.9 million for local governments.

The 2020 proposal did not get through Senate committees. The House never took up its version of the bill, which was sponsored by Rep. Chuck Clemons, a Newberry Republican who is again sponsoring the issue for the 2021 session (HB 15).

Clemons’ bill has not been heard in committees in advance of this year’s session.

Lobbyist Ida Eskamani, representing the group Florida Rising, asked Gruters to also consider closing corporate tax loopholes to further increase revenue.

Gruters maintained that because e-commerce isn’t going away, his proposal is about providing fairness to Florida businesses.

“They're paying for the employees to be there. They're contributing to overall society,” Gruters said. “We've been allowing our local retailers to get completely ripped off from the fairness standpoint by foreign companies and out-of-state retailers.”

Gruters’ proposal uses a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court decision in a case known as South Dakota v. Wayfair as a basis for trying to require out-of-state businesses to collect and remit the taxes to Florida.

The decision against Wayfair, a large online retailer with no physical presence in South Dakota, overturned a “physical presence test,” expanding states’ abilities to collect sales taxes.

A South Dakota law, which focuses on remote sellers with $100,000 of sales or 200 individual transactions into the state, has since been copied by 43 states and the District of Columbia.

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