Just when it seemed tax season was over, the taxman cometh.
This week, the U.S. Senate is slated to consider the Marketplace Fairness Act, a bill introduced by Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., that would give states the ability to collect sales tax on Internet purchases -- no matter where the seller is located -- with an exemption for sellers with annual U.S. sales of less than $1 million.
In Pennsylvania, where an estimated $380 million in taxes is lost each year because residents do not pay taxes on many of their online purchases, the state Department of Revenue is "eager to see what happens" with the legislation, department spokeswoman Elizabeth Brassell said in a phone interview Monday. Republican Gov. Tom Corbett has endorsed the legislation, she said.
Yet, as anyone who recently filed the PA-40 state income tax form knows, Pennsylvania already has taken steps to collect taxes on online purchases, requiring that residents pay the same sales tax for purchases made over the Internet as they would at a shop down the street -- 7 percent for Allegheny County residents.
Starting with the 2011 Pennsylvania income tax form, filers were required to disclose the amount owed on untaxed Internet purchases, Ms. Brassell said.
And starting Sept. 1, 2012, online sellers with a physical presence in Pennsylvania -- such as Seattle-based Amazon.com, which has distribution centers in the state -- were required to collect at least 6 percent sales tax for purchases made by Pennsylvania residents.
"We are approaching it from both the consumer side and the retail side, and we are certainly closing the gap," Ms. Brassell said.
It's still a pretty big gap, though.
Only about 100,000 households in Pennsylvania reported owing tax from online purchases made during 2011, the year for which the most recent data was available, sending about $4 million to the state that year, Ms. Brassell said.
Since Sept. 1, 2012, the state has collected about $31 million from 101 e-commerce retailers with a presence in Pennsylvania.
Collecting tax on items purchased on the Internet is "a matter of fairness," Ms. Brassell said. A person who purchases an item in a store shouldn't have to pay sales tax while another person who buys the same item online doesn't, she said.
The National Retail Federation, a Washington, D.C.-based industry group, has made a similar argument in support of the Marketplace Fairness Act, saying it creates a "level playing field."
"We hear from small businesses every day, saying we can compete with customers on service, selection, even shipping, but we can't compete on sales tax," spokesman Stephen E. Schatz said.
Some online retailers are urging members of Congress to oppose the bill. John Donahoe, president and CEO of eBay, posted a letter online Sunday, writing that the bill would impose unnecessary burdens on small online businesses by requiring them to collect sales tax from more than 9,600 U.S. tax jurisdictions.
For now, getting taxpayers to pay online sales taxes if they are not applied by the seller is no easy task.
Asked how many people made such disclosures during the most recent tax season, Darryl Adams, an accountant and founder of Adams & Associates accounting firm in South Park, said, "One out of 1,700." The year before, no clients disclosed online purchases.
"How many people want to voluntarily pay taxes?" Mr. Adams asked.