St. Louis County Municipal Use Taxes Should Expand the Tax Base, Not the Size of Government
A version of this commentary appeared in the St. Louis Business Journal.
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 a family’s Sears catalog purchases in St. Louis was a lot of work for little revenue. The internet has changed that. The Supreme Court decision in the “Wayfair” case, changes to state legislation in 2021, and, most obviously, the tremendous increase in e-commerce during the pandemic, have all combined to greatly increase the need or desire (depending on your point of view) for governments to tax online sales.
For purposes of comparison, e-commerce now makes up over 14% of total sales in the United States according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. For cities in St. Louis County, 14% is a lot of sales not to tax. To address that, several St. Louis County municipalities (Chesterfield, Town and County, Fenton, Maryland Heights, Velda City, Flordell Hills, and Northwoods) have placed a use tax on the April 4, 2023, ballot. In many of these municipalities, use taxes have been proposed and failed previously. However, a lot has changed in e-commerce in recent years, and it may be time for voters to revisit the issue. (Although for cities like Chesterfield and Fenton, where voters rejected the use tax less than a year ago, asking again in the manner of a spurned yet persistent suiter is unseemly.)
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 for cities in St. Louis County. But let’s be clear: if there is no corresponding reduction in other taxes, this is a tax increase on residents.
Flordell Hills is a particularly intriguing decision. I’m curious to see if voters will trust city government with more tax money after two city officials were recently convicted of stealing over $600,000 in city funds—a substantial portion of the annual budget. Fool me once . . .
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 Maryland Heights, to give one example, previously estimated it would receive about $2 million per year if a use tax is enacted. 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 municipal government revenues. Imposing a use tax in a revenue-neutral manner is not new idea. It is exactly how the Missouri legislature addressed this issue with the state’s new use tax law in 2021.
For the cities in St. Louis County 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. That would lead to a wider tax base, fairer competition between businesses, and lower rates for taxpayers. Other options for various cities if the use tax is approved include eliminating more harmful taxes or fees. Reducing the local utility tax rate would be another good exchange for cities that do not levy property taxes, such as Chesterfield.
The imposition of a use tax in these St. Louis County cities 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 that embrace the positive aspects of the use tax, these municipalities 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.