So spring is finally here, and you want a new barbecue grill.
You swing by the neighborhood hardware store, talk with a sales person who knows his charcoal, find just the right model and then — you go home, surf the web and order it over the Internet.
Same $300 price. Free shipping, maybe, and no 7 percent sales tax. That's $21 bucks in taxes you don't have to pay, right? Wrong.
In most states that levy a sales tax, you're required by state law to pay it. But a court ruling made it difficult for states to enforce those requirements for online sales, so almost no one pays.
Congress now has a chance to close this loophole, and it should. Approval of the Marketplace Fairness Act would level the playing field for all businesses.
The legislation got strong preliminary support in the Senate, including yes votes from Sens. Mike Johanns and Deb Fischer of Nebraska and Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin. Midlands senators and congressmen should continue to back this measure until it becomes law.
The bill would eliminate an outdated restriction that favors online retailers over local merchants who sell the same products.
Competition in the marketplace is a good thing. But tax policy should treat all businesses alike, not be used to pick winners and losers.
The bill has been criticized as a new tax. It's not. Sales taxes are owed by buyers, not sellers. Sellers collect the tax and send the money back to the state.
But under a 1992 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, online retailers aren't obligated to collect and remit those taxes unless they have physical operations — stores or warehouses, for example — located in a state.
That's not fair to local businesses that employ thousands of Midlanders. And the loophole deprives states and cities nationwide of $11 billion to $23 billion a year in taxes that are owed but not paid. Nebraska officials estimate that $45 million annually goes uncollected.
In the two decades since the Supreme Court ruled on this issue, things have changed. Computers are almost everywhere. They're faster. Online retailing has boomed.
According to Internet Retailer, U.S. online sales reached $225.5 billion last year, up nearly 16 percent from $194.7 billion in 2011. That was the third year in a row that online sales growth topped 15 percent.
Critics say the bill's requirements would be hard on smaller Internet merchants. However, the legislation would exempt retailers with less than $1 million in annual sales — and that covers a lot of smaller businesses.
Critics say that collecting taxes for many different jurisdictions would be too difficult. But Web-based software that wasn't dreamed of in 1992 simplifies the process now. And the bill would allow states to seek taxes from online sellers only if they provide free software to manage tax collections.
When the Internet was in its infancy, providing some protection from the patchwork quilt of different state and local tax laws may have made sense as a new industry got off the ground.
That's no longer the case. Online sales have come a long way since dial-up Internet. Smartphone in hand, today's shopper could order the desired merchandise online while standing there looking at it in a hometown store.
But, in many instances, that online retailer isn't providing a single local job. It's not paying all of the taxes that local businesses pay. It's not buying goods or services from other local companies.
Main Street merchants — those who invest in their states and their communities — are accustomed to competition. They strive to offer better service, better selections, better prices. But it needs to be a fair fight. Taxing all sales the same would help even the odds.