The U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling in the South Dakota vs Wayfair case that opens the door for states to impose sales tax on sellers outside their borders. The case highlights a new standard of business presence called "economic nexus" that may have major implications for businesses and consumers alike.
Economic nexus explained
The exact definition varies, but in general, economic nexus makes a connection between a taxing authority (usually a state) and a seller based on certain sales or transaction levels. The Supreme Court agrees with South Dakota that having economic presence is enough to require an out-of-state retailer to register with the state to collect and remit sales tax. For example, the state of South Dakota mandates that if a retailer has $100,000 in annual in-state sales or has 200 separate in-state sales transactions over the previous 12 months, they must collect sales tax on all sales in South Dakota.
What it means for businesses
New, lower threshold for tax exposure: Sales tax nexus was mostly determined by physical presence. If a business has an office or employee located in a state, they likely were required to collect tax on sales in that state. The economic nexus standard removes the physical presence requirement with this ruling. Businesses now may need to compare sales-by-state data to the individual state economic nexus laws to determine whether they have a sales tax obligation in that state.
More tax registrations & filings: Businesses that sell outside their state may need to register in many more states – maybe all 50. With more registrations come more compliance management and more sales tax returns that need to be filed on an ongoing basis. The impact on workload for sales tax staffs could be huge.
Increased audit potential: With each new state registration comes a new potential audit authority. Sales tax audits almost always bring in additional revenue for states, so they will be looking to capitalize on the increased registrations. Sales tax compliance management is more important than ever and could lead to state income tax changes.
As many as 16 states have economic nexus laws in place to try to take advantage of the new ruling, with many more to introduce legislation. By nature, Internet retailers will be hit the hardest and are expected to lobby in states that have not passed economic nexus laws. In addition, it will take states some time to get their systems updated to handle the new laws and increased filings. While there might be some short-term delays during implementation, sales tax changes appear to be on their way.