Taxes Matter 24: Sales Tax Zappers are a Symptom of a Larger Problem

Taxes Matter 24: Sales Tax Zappers are a Symptom of a Larger Problem

September 10, 2011 Posted by J. Scott Moody - No Comments

Today the Kennebec Journal has a story about the rise of sales tax zapper computer programs that enable businesses to under-report their taxable sales and lower their sales tax bill.  Of course, the article casts Maine’s state government as the victim of unscrupulous business owners:

But some lawmakers are concerned the state may be losing significant revenue from the latest computer technology, called “zappers” because they alter sales records in a more subtle way that still yields a lot of cash for the seller.

“It’s clearly subversive and against our process of treating people fairly, equitably and everyone paying their fair share of the tax burden,” said Rep. Garry Knight, R-Livermore Falls, co-chairman of the Legislature’s Taxation Committee. “I would suggest that zappers be outlawed in this state.”

He said his panel has not looked at the expanding use of technology to cheat on tax laws, but he said if it is happening in other states, Maine should assume some is happening here.

With a zapper program, a $6 burger-and-fries combo at a restaurant, for example, could be altered by the software to reflect a $4 burger sale. In Maine, that would mean 14 cents going to the restaurant owner that should be paid in taxes. In other states, that has added up to a lot of lost revenue.

A retailer can have the program change the sales price of an item. For example, a $20 shirt is reported as selling for $18. In Maine, that’s a loss of a dime; but all of those nickels, dimes and pennies add up.

A retailer can have the program change the sales price of an item. For example, a $20 shirt is reported as selling for $18. In Maine, that’s a loss of a dime; but all of those nickels, dimes and pennies add up.

“Tax evasion is something that we always should take seriously,” said Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, the lead Democrat on the Taxation Committee. “Zappers are something that Maine Revenue Services is not able to track. It is a very difficult enforcement problem.”

He said Maine should watch what other states are doing and consider adopting policies and laws that seem to work the best. He agreed Maine may want to outlaw the computer programs, although he is not sure how effective that may be.

As usual, policymakers are simply treating this as a tax compliance issue when, in reality, this zapper issue is a symptom of a much larger problem–Maine’s sales tax is suffocating the state’s retailers.  A few month’s ago I released a study which showed that Maine is annually losing an estimated $2.2 billion in retail sales to New Hampshire thanks to tax-fueled cross-border shopping by Mainers.  Lowering the sales tax would encourage more Mainers to stay home to do their shopping.  As a result, Maine’s retailers would not be struggling quite as much as they are now and having to resort to desperate measures such as sales tax avoidance.

In fact, the analysis suggests that Maine sales rate of 5 percent is very likely on the back-side of the Laffer curve.  In other words, a lower sales tax rate would generate more economic growth and higher tax collections from other taxes, such as income taxes, the remaining sales tax, property taxes, etc., that it would offset the lower sales tax collections stemming from the tax rate reduction.  It’s the closest thing to a “free lunch” that one can get in tax policy.  Yet, policymakers have just left the sandwich on the table.

No, the real victims here are Maine’s businesses who have historically been treated by policymakers as a “money pinata.”  Now, on top of the sorry economy, Maine businesses, especially smaller businesses, will have to live in fear that the next knock on their door will be an agent from the Maine Revenue Service as they attempt to crack down on these sales tax zappers.  This will be an added tax compliance cost for all businesses which is especially onerous and demeaning to the overwhelming majority who play-by-the-rules.