The Right Note: No Use for This Tax

The Right Note is a weekly opinion column by published on Thursdays. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of

Mark KellyThe new Virginia transportation plan assumes it will receive revenue from online sales taxes captured under proposed legislation currently being considered by Congress. While the plan faces a number of hurdles in Washington, many are wondering how it would work?

Online sales have been largely exempt from taxes based on a Supreme Court case decision requiring a seller to have a physical presence in a state in order to be subject to collecting that state’s sales tax. Instead of trying to overturn this legal precedent, proponents of imposing online sales taxes have deftly moved to the other, largely unknown side, of the tax. It’s known as the use tax.

If you’ve never heard of it, you are not alone. By some estimates, 99 percent of use taxes are not paid. This makes it the type of ineffective government plan that is likely to be a prime candidate for repeal.

What is a use tax? In the simplest terms, residents of Virginia are legally required to pay a tax on any items you purchase that are not currently subject to a sales tax. So, whether you have been shopping tax free at or in Delaware, you technically owe Virginia sales tax on those items.

I found out about the use tax the hard way when my wife received an item as a gift that was shipped into Virginia from North Carolina. The revenue office acquired the shipping invoice and sent us a tax bill well over a year later. Rather than spending countless hours fighting the charge, we simply paid it, despite not having purchased the item ourselves.

Since then, I have always made a voluntary contribution to the use tax on my annual Virginia tax return. I also have been waiting for a statewide candidate who calls for repealing the use tax as part of their platform.

Now the use tax is proposed as the vehicle for a big revenue increase that will take more money out of our economy. Under the theory that we in Virginia, and in most states, currently owe this use tax anyway, the proponents of federal legislation view this mechanism as a way around the Supreme Court ruling requiring a physical presence in a state to collect sales taxes. To do so, the plan would require us to pay the use taxes for Virginia on online sales at the point of sale.

If the federal law enabling use tax collections passes, Richmond should drop the plans to spend it. Instead, we should move to immediately lower the sales and use tax rate in a manner that ensures there is no net increase in revenue. Our Virginia economy would benefit from this approach. It would help all Virginians, and particularly those with lower incomes who need to maximize their buying power.

Mark Kelly is a former Arlington GOP Chairman and two-time Republican candidate for Arlington County Board.

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