Workers push carts full of merchandise at the Amazon.com Phoenix Fulfillment Center in 2010. (Joshua Lott, Bloomberg / June 30, 2011)

By Marc Lifsher, Los Angeles Times
June 30, 2011

Reporting from Sacramento— Shopping at Amazon.com Inc. and other major Internet stores is poised to get more expensive.

Beginning Friday, a new state law will require large out-of-state retailers to collect sales taxes on purchases that their California customers make on the Internet — a prospect eased only slightly by a 1-percentage-point drop in the tax that also takes effect at the same time.

Getting the taxes, which consumers typically don’t pay to the state if online merchants don’t charge them, is “a common-sense idea,” said Gov. Jerry Brown, who signed the legislation into law Wednesday.

The new tax collection requirement — part of budget-related legislation — is expected to raise an estimated $317 million a year in new state and local government revenue.

But those taxes may come with a price. Amazon and online retailer Overstock.com Inc. told thousands of California Internet marketing affiliates that they will stop paying commissions for referrals of so-called click-through customers.

That’s because the new requirement applies only to online sellers based out of state that have some connection to California, such as workers, warehouses or offices here.

Both Amazon in Seattle and Overstock in Salt Lake City have told affiliates that they would have to move to another state if they wanted to continue earning commissions for referring customers.

“We oppose this bill because it is unconstitutional and counterproductive,” Amazon wrote its California business partners Wednesday. Amazon has not indicated what further actions it might take to challenge the California law.

Many of about 25,000 affiliates in California, especially larger ones with dozens of employees, are likely to leave the state, said Rebecca Madigan, executive director of trade group Performance Marketing Assn. The affiliates combined paid $152 million in state income taxes last year, she pointed out.

“We have to consider it,” said Loren Bendele, chief executive of Savings.com, a West Los Angeles website that links viewers to hundreds of money-saving deals. “It does not look good for our business.”

The larger bite from buyers’ pocketbooks will be eased only a bit because California’s basic sales tax rate also will drop to 7.75% on Friday when a 2-year-old temporary increase expires. The basic rate in the city of Los Angeles falls back to 8.75%.

Brown’s signature on the budget bills is aimed at closing a loophole that freed Amazon and other out-of-state retailers from collecting sales taxes for California.

Not collecting sales taxes gave Internet retailers a competitive price advantage over California’s small businesses such as independent booksellers and big-box retailers with a presence in the state, including Barnes & Noble Inc., Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Best Buy Co. and Target Corp.

“You can’t give one segment of retail a 10% discount every day. It’s just not fair,” said Bill Dombrowski, president of the California Retailers Assn., a major player in a coalition of large and small stores supporting the legislation.

California’s new requirement will generate badly needed state revenue and send a signal to Congress that “we want to see a national solution” to the issue of taxing Internet sales, Dombrowski said.

California is the seventh and largest state in the country to pass a law to collect taxes on out-of-state Internet sales. Illinois, Arkansas and Connecticut acted earlier this year, North Carolina and Rhode Island in 2009 and New York in 2008. Amazon sued to overturn the New York law and lost in the lower courts. The company is paying sales taxes into an escrow account pending an appeal.

Other states currently are considering similar sales tax collection bills.

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