Monday, June 20, 2011

Taming the Amazon with taxes

Internet retailers cite a 1992 U.S. Supreme Court decision involving catalog sales, Quill Corp. v. North Dakota, which ruled that states could require only companies that had a physical presence within the state to act as tax collector.
To get around the ruling, some states are expanding what it means to be physically present. For example, an online retailer hiring a marketing firm or owning a subsidiary inside the state would qualify under definitions adopted in some states.

In February, the Texas comptroller demanded that pay $269 million in back sales taxes because a subsidiary operated a warehouse near Dallas. Amazon is appealing the order.

Last year, New York enacted a law that said Internet retailers' practice of paying commissions to marketing agents based within the state constituted a presence. Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Rhode Island and North Carolina quickly followed with similar laws.
Bills are pending in Arizona, California, Florida, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Pennsylvania. Texas lawmakers passed such a measure, but Gov. Rick Perry vetoed it. Now legislators are trying to resurrect the bill by attaching it to a larger budget measure. The matter is now before a conference committee.
California estimates it loses at least $200 million a year in uncollected tax from online sales, $83 million from alone. A bill that has passed the state Legislature would force Seattle-based Amazon and others to collect that tax from California residents.

Amazon, and other big Internet retailers cite the Quill decision as their primary defense against collecting sales taxes, but they also argue that collecting tax in the District of Columbia and the 45 states where a sales tax exists would be extremely complex and expensive.

"There are over 8,000 taxing jurisdictions in the United States," said Jonathan Johnson, president of, which has offices only in Utah. "We think it's wrong that states are trying to cause out-of-state retailers to be their tax collectors."

Monday, June 13, 2011

Has the optimal gas tax been identified?

Mass High Tech's Kyle Alspach
In 2007, a study in the Journal of Economic Literature found that the ideal average gas tax for the U.S. would be $2.10 a gallon At the time, the average tax was 40 cents a gallon — 18.4 cents for federal and 22 cents for state (it’s currently 23.5 cents in Massachusetts).

The $2.10 figure takes into account greenhouse gas emissions, local pollution and oil dependency, along with the costs of congestion and accidents.

To make the tax palatable, economists say the government could cut taxes in other areas — say, the income tax for consumers or corporate taxes for businesses.
The tax trade-off seems like a reasonable idea but revenue-hungry politicians would never take up the offer.

In the rush to move toward a Pigouvian tax model, supporters of higher taxes tend to forget that such excise taxes are regressive. More than they did in the past, low-income workers rely more heavily on jobs in the suburbs and most use cars to get there.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

BHI releases study on education spending in Massachusetts

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts could cut more than a billion dollars from education spending without measurably affecting the performance of public schools. This is a finding of a study released today by the Beacon Hill Institute and entitled, Why Massachusetts Should Spend Less on Education. Read more.

Complete study is available at

Monday, June 6, 2011

Video: David Tuerck testifies on H.R. 735

Testimony from BHI Executive Director David G. Tuerck begins at approximately 22:00 into this recording.

Text of BHI testimony in PDF is here.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Beacon Hill Institute testifies before U.S. Congress

Full testimony is available at BHI's website

David G. Tuerck
Department of Economics and Beacon Hill Institute
Suffolk University, Boston
June 3, 2011

Testimony Relating to the Government Neutrality in Contracting Act (H.R. 735) Before the Subcommittee on Technology, Information Policy, Intergovernmental Relations and Procurement Reform, Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, U.S. House of Representatives

Chairman Lankford, Members of the Subcommittee, I am Professor and Chairman of Economics and Executive Director of the Beacon Hill Institute at Suffolk University in Boston. I appreciate the opportunity to submit this testimony.

I will direct my comments at “H.R.735, and Project Labor Agreements: Restoring Neutrality to Government Construction Projects.” H.R. 735 effectively nullifies a February 2009 executive order from the Obama Administration “encouraging” federal agencies to consider using PLAs on construction projects costing $25 million or more.

My comments are my own and do not represent the sentiments my employer, Suffolk University. Nor do they represent my support for any organization or private interest that might stand to benefit from the passage of H.R. 735.

I would like to offer my strong support of this measure, subject to just one caveat. The caveat is that “neutrality” falls short of what is called for. What would be better is an outright ban on PLAs of the kind that was in force during the Administration of President George W. Bush, who forbade the use of PLAs on federal construction projects.

This subcommittee already knows how PLAs work. The adoption of a PLA amounts, in effect, to the conferral of monopoly power over the supply of construction labor on a select group of construction unions. The putative reason for adopting a PLA is to assure labor “stability.” But the real reason is to confer monopoly power on a select group of unions and to discourage bids from contractors who use other unions or nonunion labor.

The construction unions use the word “stability” as a euphemism for promising not to cause trouble. But the threat of trouble is mostly an empty one. A genuine worry arises only when an owner uses nonunion labor, in retaliation for which it has to put with antics of the kind for which Boston’s International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers is famous. But Boston building owners are on to the IBEW and are showing increasing willingness to say no to intimidation.

In my written testimony I provide the core argument against PLAs: PLAs are supposed to correct for a problem for which the best correction is simply not to adopt a PLA. The problem is that certain contractors – the PLA-union contractors – are so burdened with collective bargaining agreements that they would have a hard time performing a job on time and on budget, but for the PLA. The adoption of a PLA, however, amounts to a needless rescue operation for the PLA unions and their contractors. The best way to avoid cost overruns and delays is to encourage, not discourage, bids from contractors, whether unionized or not, who are able simply to bypass the collective bargaining agreements that hobble the competitiveness of the PLA-union workers and their contractors.

That’s the crux of it. A ban on PLAs is not an anti-labor measure. I am personally involved in a New York case in which the plaintiff contractor is suing because its union has been excluded from PLAs that are being foisted on the City of New York by a different union organization and a complicit mayor. And, anyway, there is nothing pro-labor about a practice that is aimed at protecting the jobs and wages of 13% of the construction workforce at the expense of the other 87%.

The research entity I direct at Suffolk found that PLAs increase school construction costs in two states by 12% to 18%. Reliable hard estimates of this kind are rare because the disparity between construction projects makes it difficult to get statistically significant results from sample data. Fortunately for policy makers grappling with this question, however, it is possible to dispel the case for PLAs merely by pointing out the fatuous reasoning on which that case is predicated.

Adopting a PLA serves no purpose other than to put the PLA-union fox in charge of the project chicken coop. Fortunately, and as I observe in my written testimony, there is growing recognition even on the part of union-friendly observers that the argument for PLAs, and to mix my metaphors, never held water in the first place.

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