You might get your heart shattered on OkCupid. You might get stood up on Tinder, or mismatched on Match, or maybe even fall helplessly for a country fella who looks sexy in Wranglers on FarmersOnly.com.
It is hard to say what will happen when you subscribe to an online dating website, because both dating websites and love are notoriously fickle.
But there is one certainty when you use a dating service here. You do not pay a cent in sales tax to the State of Nebraska to look for online love.
Which raises a sexy question, if you are the sort of person who gets turned on by tax policy. That question is: Why?
The issue of sales tax — when we pay it, when we don’t and why — has been thrust into the limelight in the Nebraska Legislature during an ongoing debate about how to lower Nebraska’s sky-high property taxes. In fact, there’s new movement in the Legislature toward a relatively simple plan to end $100 million in sales tax exemptions and roll that money into property tax relief.
So, why do we pay sales tax on washing machine repair but not car repair? Why do we pay tax when we buy a ticket to a movie or concert but not when we buy a ticket to the Henry Doorly Zoo?
And why in the world is there currently a sales tax exemption for something rather creepily called: “Dating and social escort services”?
Supporters of a bill in the Nebraska Legislature meant to lower property taxes in part by increasing sales taxes portray the end of such exemptions as a common-sense way to rewrite our tax code.
The authors of various bills, including Sen. Lou Ann Linehan, a Republican from Elkhorn, and Sen. Tom Briese, a Republican from Albion, have identified more than two dozen different exemptions they want to end, proposing adding sales tax to things like haircuts, landscaping work, wedding planning, online flower delivery, Uber rides, pool cleaning, personal training and the aforementioned dating services.
Interestingly, the supporters of ending such exemptions span the state’s ideological and geographical landscape: Ag groups like the Nebraska Farm Bureau and the Nebraska Corn Growers Association support the idea. The left-leaning Open Sky Policy Institute does, too, as does the right-leaning Platte Institute.
We’re gonna have to do this, they all say, if we want to lower property taxes in a serious way.
“In this case, we do agree with Open Sky. We have a revenue problem,” says Jim Vokal, the director of Omaha’s Platte Institute. “It’s simply not feasible that we are gonna cut a billion dollars from the budget” to cut property taxes.
“So we have to look at the best way to raise revenue, and this makes the most logical sense,” he says of ending many sales tax exemptions.
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But opponents, chief among them Gov. Pete Ricketts, argue that a new tax is a new tax, no matter if it ends a current exemption or not.
The Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Lincoln Chamber of Commerce have also lobbied specifically against the idea of ending sales tax exemptions. In response to an interview request, David Brown, president and CEO of the Greater Omaha Chamber, issued a statement saying in part that the issue needs to be better understood before sales tax exemptions are ended.
“While we support a review of all sales tax exemptions, any possible changes must avoid double taxation and create a lower overall tax burden for everyone,” he said.
Ricketts has campaigned hard against the idea of removing exemptions, holding press conferences with auto mechanics, veterinarians, convenience store managers and real estate agents — all businesses that may be impacted by the end of one exemption or another.
His argument: Ending such exemptions produces more pain for Nebraskans — business owners, employees and consumers that might include you.
Ricketts, through a spokesman, declined to discuss his opposition to ending sales tax exemptions, citing time constraints.
“When the barbers, builders, butchers and other small businesses experience a tax increase, they are forced to pass on the costs to the customers who need their basic services. At the end of the day, the money from these tax increases will come out of your family budget,” Ricketts wrote in a recent op-ed.
To understand why our system developed this way — why we pay tax on hair products but not haircuts — we need to travel back in time 52 years to the creation of Nebraska’s sales tax.
At the time, the state economy was largely based on the sale of goods, says Bill Lock, a longtime research analyst for the Legislature’s Revenue Committee.
Also at the time, it was pretty hard for small businesses like barbershops to charge sales tax, as payment was done with old-fashioned cash into old-timey cash registers.
Thus, the Nebraska Legislature of the day created a system by which most goods were automatically taxed upon sale, but almost all services weren’t. And this “goods yes, services no” theory extended to new products, Lock said.
“Let’s say you invented a computer. Well, you haven’t said there’s a tax on computers, but it’s automatically taxable because it’s a good,” Lock says. “With services, no one was taxing those ... so a new service like, say, an (online subscription) ... that wouldn’t be taxed unless the lawmakers went back and said specifically, ‘We want to tax that.’ ”
But a few things have changed in the past half-century. The American economy has become way more service-based — an average Nebraska family buys exponentially more services than they did in the 1960s. It’s become way more online-based, of course — no one was buying flower delivery over the Internet when LBJ was president. And the advent of credit card machines and cheap software has made it way easier for even small businesses to charge sales tax on any good or service.
Even as a new era dawned, Nebraska’s sales tax system has largely stuck with the “goods yes, services no” system.
That’s in part because the system, as designed, works fairly well, Lock thinks. Nebraska’s sales tax base is already pretty broad when compared with other states.
Lock, citing the influential District of Columbia annual tax burden study, says we charge sales tax on more types of goods and services than more than half our fellow states. And many of the things that aren’t currently taxed, Lock says, are actually exempted for smart reasons. Farmers shouldn’t pay sales tax on fertilizer, he says, because “it’s an input, not a finished product.”
But the status quo has also stuck in part because Nebraska industries, particularly the service-based sectors of our economy, have successfully battled to keep their sales tax exempt status.
Lock, who retired in 2014 after spending his entire career working on tax-and-spend issues for the state, remembers lobbyists for accountants and lawyers fighting tooth and nail to make sure state sales taxes weren’t charged on accounting and legal services.
And Vokal, a former Omaha city councilman, says it can be difficult for lawmakers to take a stand against well-organized, well-prepared industry lobbyists.
“If you are successful at lobbying, you have already carved out (a sales tax exemption for) your industry,” he says. “It takes some political courage to stand up to these industries and their lobbyists and say, ‘Look, we have a tax crisis in our state.’ ”
But maybe the stickiest wicket when it comes to the end of sales tax exemptions are Nebraska taxpayers ourselves.
The Platte Institute’s own polling shows that, in theory, we generally favor ending sales tax exemptions to pay for property tax relief. It seems transparent to people. It seems fairer.
But when you ask Nebraskans if they are specifically for ending a sales tax exemption on personal care services like haircuts or transportation services like Uber rides, “it gets a little bit muddier,” Vokal admits.
Most of us get haircuts. Many of us take Ubers. It’s much harder to give up a specific exemption than it is to give up the general idea of them.
As for “dating and escort services,” it produced a lot of awkward silences when I asked about it this week. The Revenue Committee estimates that starting to charge sales tax on such services will bring in $300,000 annually to start.
Everyone assumes “dating and escort services” means starting to charge state sales tax on subscriptions to online sites like Tinder. But no one, not even those who helped author the bills, actually know for sure at this point. The definition of what “dating and escort services” actually is will come from the Nebraska Department of Revenue if and when the sales tax exemption is ended.
So keep looking to get matched on Match. Keep looking for harmony on eHarmony. You might end up having to pay sales tax on these subscriptions down the line. But for now at least, love is tax free.
Sales tax exemptions on the chopping block in Nebraska
To raise new revenue for a property tax relief plan, a legislative bill proposes to do away with about 20 sales tax exemptions. Here are some of the goods and services that would be taxed under Legislative Bill 289, and the amount of revenue those taxes generate.