Missouri Use Taxes Should Expand the Tax Base, Not the Size of Government
Use taxes in Missouri are simply sales taxes on goods delivered to your home from out-of-state sellers. Local governments have been authorized to collect use taxes for a long time—predating the internet, even—but they have not been widely adopted. Collecting sales taxes on Sears catalog purchases was a lot of work for little revenue. The internet has changed that. The recent Supreme Court decision in the “Wayfair” case, changes to state legislation, and, most obviously, the tremendous increase in e-commerce during the pandemic have all combined to greatly increase the need or desire for governments to tax online sales.
For purposes of comparison, e-commerce now makes up over 12% of total sales in the United States according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. For cities and counties in Missouri, 12% is a lot of sales not to tax. To address that, at least four counties and dozens of cities have placed use taxes on the April 5, 2022, ballot. Expanding the tax base with a use tax, if done in conjunction with a reduction of other, more harmful taxes, could be a beneficial change. But let’s be clear: if there is no corresponding reduction in other taxes, this is a tax increase on residents.
It is a central tenet of tax policy that a tax base should be as broad as possible. The more expansive the tax base, the lower the rate that must be imposed to fund the functions of government. Exact use tax revenue amounts are hard to predict, but the revenues for each city will not be insignificant. Local governments have received federal COVID-relief and stimulus funds, home values have risen substantially, and tax collections during the pandemic were not down as much as initially feared. As a result, many of these cities and counties do not need this new tax revenue to meet vital needs. The use tax could be approved by voters to responsibly expand the tax base and equalize the competition between online and physical stores, but it should not be approved simply to grow government revenues. Imposing a use tax in a revenue-neutral manner is not a new idea. It is exactly how the Missouri Legislature addressed this issue with the state’s new use tax law in 2021. St. Francois County officials have publicly stated they will lower their county property tax if the use tax is approved.
For cities and counties in Missouri proposing to impose their own use taxes, the simplest way for them to offset the revenue increases from the use tax would be to lower their property taxes in a revenue-neutral manner. Other options for various local governments if the use taxes are approved include eliminating more harmful taxes, such as the paradoxical local sales tax for economic development. Reducing the local utility tax rates would be another good exchange for cities that do not levy property taxes.
The imposition of a use tax for these Missouri cities and counties could be a positive policy change. It could also be an easy way for politicians to just raise taxes one more time. By having various city officials pledge to enact offsetting revenue reductions, local officials can amplify the public benefits while curtailing the tax impact on residents and businesses. That is a plan I think most taxpayers and voters could support. Without such a commitment, though, the use tax is just another tax increase.