Amazon.com has finally agreed to start collecting sales tax for California beginning 2012. Legislation enacting the agreement was passed overwhelmingly and with bi-partisan support by the California state legislature last Friday and is being sent on to the governor. Amazon.com withdrew their ballot initiative to exclude them from the requirement to collect the tax.
If old age has not eroded my memory, I believe that this struggle began in 1999 at a dinner on Fourth Street in Berkeley with representatives of the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association and Lenny Goldberg, a progressive lobbyist in Sacramento.
The booksellers’ argument; unassailable from perspectives of policy, economics, and even morality, seemed to be doomed by the powerful and implacable forces of the Internet mania of the time, and the political power of Silicon Valley. At first we were treated with a combination of condescension and contempt. But more often we were simply ignored. The democratic majority supported us and passed several pieces of legislation. But there was always unanimous opposition from the Republican minority, who saw it falsely as a tax increase and from governors Gray Davis and Arnold Schwarzenegger, who opposed it for opportunistic reasons.
There was always a modicum of support from larger retailers like Macy’s and Walmart along with the commercial shopping center interests. But they were always reluctant to get out in front of this issue until the very end.
The principle at stake was whether tax rules should be applied evenhandedly. Paradoxically we had a profoundly conservative position; that is if you consider conservatism as being against government interfering in economic activity, in this case picking winners and losers and distorting the free market through tax policy. I never quite understood why conservatives consistently opposed this principle.
Tax policy is still riddled with special breaks for large interests, probably even more detrimental and egregious that the Amazon sales tax issue. But it is nice to know that every once in awhile, government will do something right in spite of powerful and implacable forces. It doesn’t happen very often, but it demonstrates that ordinary people can do extraordinary things.
Thanks California independent booksellers. Now let’s collect some of these taxes due and fix the pot holes and start hiring teachers.