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House Votes to Protect Internet From New Taxes Until 2006

Congressional critics seeking a shorter moratorium lost out to party maneuvering for the allegiance of the booming high-tech industry.

May 11, 2000|JANET HOOK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The House voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to block any new taxes targeting the Internet through 2006, brushing aside opposition from local tax authorities and conventional retailers who fear a massive loss of sales to the burgeoning "new economy."

The bill would extend for five years an existing moratorium on Internet access fees and other new taxes. But it leaves unresolved one of the thorniest questions in the electronic economy: how existing state sales taxes apply to Internet commerce.

Some critics of the bill, including President Clinton, called for a shorter extension of the moratorium. They argued that a five-year bill would undercut pressure for government and business to act any time soon on outstanding e-commerce issues, including the difficulty of enforcing the existing sales taxes on Internet transactions.

In a strong expression of those qualms, an amendment to extend the moratorium only two years failed narrowly, 219 to 208.

But then, in a sign of the high-technology industry's growing political clout, the final vote on the five-year extension was 352 to 75, with 142 Democrats joining 209 Republicans and one independent in supporting the measure. That lopsided bipartisan vote underscored the pitched battle between the parties to win the favor of an industry whose political allegiance is up for grabs.

Indeed, the tax-moratorium bill is part of a concerted Republican drive to appeal to the high-tech sector with a flurry of action this month on industry priorities. These include an increase in limits on visas for high-tech workers from other countries, a repeal of the telephone excise tax and normal trade status for China.

Although many Democrats support those measures, Republicans are trying to put the GOP stamp on an agenda that they have dubbed the eContract2000--a knockoff of the "contract with America" campaign manifesto that the party rode to success in the mid-1990s.

"We Republicans are very proud to stand here and support the technology industry," said Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas). "Why? Because the Republican Party stands for freedom, economic growth and getting the government out of the way."

Indicative of the GOP's desire to align itself with the interests of high-tech, House Republican leaders pushed the tax moratorium to a vote, even though the current law does not expire until October 2001.

Still, the bill apparently will face tougher sledding in the Senate. The Senate Commerce Committee had planned to approve a five-year moratorium extension last month but canceled the meeting because of opposition from state officials and retailers.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the committee's chairman, not only supports the five-year extension but has called for making the moratorium permanent. But foes of the extension also have allies on the panel, and a hearing on the measure has not yet been rescheduled.

The 10 States Allowed to Tax May Lose Right

The current moratorium, established in 1998, prohibits states and localities from imposing any new taxes on access to the Internet and from imposing any other kind of tax that applies only to the Internet. The 1998 law provided an exemption for 10 states--California is not one of them--that already had imposed taxes on Internet access. The bill the House passed Wednesday would eliminate the 10-state exemption.

Proponents said that the extension was necessary to avoid stifling the spectacular growth of the electronic economy.

"No one put a ship tax on Magellan," said Rep. Rick Lazio (R-N.Y.). "No one put a mule tax on Lewis and Clark. We don't know where the high-tech roller coaster will take us all next. All we can do is hold on and enjoy the fabulous ride."

Some lawmakers, including Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach), argued that the tax ban should be permanent. But an amendment to do so was defeated, 336 to 90.

The moratorium does not address the question of how sales taxes apply to Internet commerce, but many lawmakers said they fear that the five-year extension would put on hold all discussion of that issue. They expressed concern that, when the extension would expire in 2006, so many economic interests would be vested in a system with sharply limited sales taxes that it would be impossible to change.

Under current law, Internet retailers--such as mail-order companies--charge sales tax only on customers who live in states where the companies have a physical presence. Other customers are supposed to voluntarily pay sales tax to their home states, but in practice compliance is low and enforcement difficult.

State and local officials and traditional retailers argue that they will suffer significant revenue losses unless a way is found to impose on Internet retailers the same sales tax requirements that exist for more standard sales venues.

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