Letters to the editor

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Compliance with sales tax regs isn't so simple

Your Dec. 14 article "States Hard on Trail of Online Sales Taxes" attempted to address a very complex issue: that of sales tax regulations. As a former auditor with the commonwealth and currently a sales tax manager for a Pittsburgh-based retailer, I can assure you compliance with the myriad of sales tax regulations is not as simplistic as you conveyed in the article.

It is true that software programs facilitate the preparation of the sales tax return and identify the correct rate " ... without the business owner ever having to lift a calculator." You failed to address the administrative burden of filing a sales tax return in potentially every taxing jurisdiction in the country that imposes a sales tax.

Additionally, the jurisdictions' varying treatments of the products that are subject to sales tax compound the issue. Clothing is subject to sales tax in New York; in Pennsylvania, clothing is exempt. Louisiana exempts food from state sales tax, but the local parishes in Louisiana impose a local sales tax.

Food is defined differently in different states. In Kentucky a breakfast cereal bar can be considered candy and subject to sales tax, while a KitKat bar is considered food because flour is listed as one of the ingredients. Which would you hand out to the kids in your neighborhood at Halloween?

The Streamlined Sales Tax Commission has attempted to bring some uniformity to sales tax regulations, but less than half of the states have agreed to conform. Congress will need to overhaul the sales tax regulations to address the issues raised here, and in your article.

With respect to Internet retailers "escaping responsibility" of charging sales tax based on a technicality, they are simply following the same regulations that require retailers to tax a breakfast cereal bar as candy, but exempt a KitKat bar as food.

South Fayette

Walmart hogwash

In the Dec. 20 article "Big Stores Don't Ease Tax for Coupon Use," about some retail chains failing to give a tax break to Pennsylvanians who use coupons in their stores, a Walmart source was quoted as saying that Walmart was "reluctant to invest in a major computer upgrade necessary to make the switch since it would only be used in its stores in Pennsylvania."

As someone who has spent more than 35 years in a career designing and coding billing and accounting software for businesses as diverse as durable medical equipment sellers, home health agencies, infusion therapy companies, lumber yards, local governments, banks, credit unions and a variety of businesses associated with the steel industry, many of whom have used the software in operations nationwide, I think I know a thing or two about what constitutes "major computer upgrades."

To have a slightly different tax calculation based on whether or not a coupon was applied in a particular state is hardly rocket science, and for Walmart to imply otherwise is nothing short of Arkansas hogwash. If Walmart's software is so poorly written that such a thing is actually true, then maybe it really does need a major upgrade, not only of its software, but of the designers and engineers who produce it.

Swisshelm Park

A wrong turn

A letter from Bobby Stauffer last Sunday properly castigates Sen. Joe Lieberman for his extortion activities regarding the Senate health-care reform bill ("Contemptible," Issue One). Connecticut's bantam rooster of a legislator has killed any chance of meaningful price competition among health-care insurers. He has thus achieved the goal of his sponsor/benefactors, the giant insurance interests that have showered him with millions of dollars of "campaign" funds. For this he deserves the opprobrium that Mr. Stauffer, in two sarcastic paragraphs, heaped upon him.

The third paragraph of Mr. Stauffer's letter is something else again. Continuing in his sarcastic tone, he writes, " ... let's freeze all government spending unless it's used for defense and Israel (which are acceptable to Mr. Lieberman). ..."

The linking of "Lieberman" and "Israel" seems obvious. Of the dozens of countries that receive American foreign aid, only Israel is mentioned.

Careful, Mr. Stauffer. Your biggotry is showing.


A peace message

Like Helen Gerhardt ("Islam in Service to Our Country," Dec. 13 Forum), I too read Thomas L. Friedman's November address to Muslims in The New York Times. I was pleased to read her response to Mr. Friedman for stating that Muslims "need to show us how [Islam's] positive interpretations are being promoted in your schools and mosques."

Also like Ms. Gerhardt, I spent some years in the Middle East. I saw firsthand how Islam's message of peace is promoted in even the most horrific living situations such as refugee camps in Palestine. The message from Palestinians I heard for more than two years: "All we want is peace!"

This message is coming from a people who have been living under a brutal military occupation, the longest standing of our time. Many Palestinians, internally displaced, who have had their homes and their olive trees uprooted, continuously resist complete annihilation through nonviolent means. And their message is rooted in the most basic concepts of Islam -- social justice and peace. Of course, it is not just Muslim Palestinians under the gun. Christian Palestinians echo a similar narrative.

For any Pittsburgher who agrees with Mr. Friedman's critique, I urge spending a week or two witnessing with your own eyes and ears Islam's call to peace in, say, Bethlehem. But bring a book for the wait in line, an eight-meter-high steel wall separates the birthplace of Jesus from the rest of the world. During this holiday season, I ponder, "What would Jesus do?"


Disturbing passages

In Helen Gerhardt's essay, "Islam in Service to Our Country" (Dec. 13), she quoted passages from the Quran, the Muslim holy book, to show that, in the words of her fellow servicewoman and a Muslim, "We are all brothers of the book."

Unfortunately, a close reading of the Quran dispels the notion of a brotherhood among Muslims, Jews and Christians. For example, 5:51 of the Quran: "O ye who believe, take not the Jews and the Christians for your friends and protectors ... He ...that turns to them ... verily, Allah guideth not ..."

A similar example can be found in 9:29 of the Quran: "Fight those who believe not in Allah ... Nor acknowledge the religion ... from among the people of the book ... ." The "people of the book" are Christians and Jews.

Passages 5:51 and 9:29 are two of countless anti-Christian, anti-Hebrew quotes in the Muslim "Bible." If Muslims, Christians and Jews are to live as one in our country, they must begin by being honest about the Quran and its disturbing, hostile content.

Hill District

Films have a major influence on whether kids will smoke

Regarding "State Slashed Tobacco Prevention Funding" (Dec. 10): While states like Pennsylvania are spending less on tobacco control, they're spending more to subsidize film productions with smoking. These films are proven to recruit hundreds of thousands of teens to smoke. A recent report from the University of California, San Francisco, found that states recently began spending an estimated $830 million on films with smoking -- well above spending on tobacco control -- including $500 million on kid-rated films with smoking.

Example: Pennsylvania reportedly budgeted $75 million on film subsidies -- of which, on nationwide average, 60 percent goes to films that promote smoking. $45 million is more than twice as much as the state spent to prevent smoking. Based on data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and more than a decade of peer-reviewed research reports, UCSF estimates that about 62,000 current Pennsylvania smokers aged 12-17 became smokers because of their exposure to smoking on-screen. Of these, some 20,000 will ultimately die from tobacco-related diseases.

Not only will more addicted smokers add to states' health burdens, the states' indiscriminate film subsidy policies directly undermine effective tobacco control. We know that tobacco prevention programs are highly cost-effective. The evidence for film subsidies is much more controversial. Major national health and medical organizations have endorsed an R-rating for future smoking and other voluntary measures to encourage producers to keep kid-rated movies smoke-free.

Making youth-rated films with smoking ineligible for future taxpayer subsidies would also shape Hollywood decision-making -- and could free up state money for anti-smoking campaigns.

For more information on movie smoking, go to smokefreemovies.ucsf.edu.

Consultant to University of California, San Francisco
Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education
Fairfax, Calif.


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