Cris Mooney
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"Of course, that's just my opinion, and I may be full of shit"
- Dennis Miller -

Since this opinion was considered in great detail, it will be difficult to change my mind. However, it's not impossible. I am always open to reason. I welcome well thoughtful, logical, response.

Recorded Nov 28, 2012

Amazon Implementation of PA Sales Tax

In 2012 Pennsylvania pressed Amazon to help collect "sales" tax that internet sales have bypassed/hidden, apparently as the next step beyond last year's warning folks that they were responsible for unpaid sales tax on their income tax (allowing an income based "fixed-guess" of $7-$83 in Allegheny if you did not have required records -

Confused by Amazon's tax on purchases, I found the post and was prompted to research and contribute.

My addition to

> be sure to check the bottom line

Good luck with that.

Amazon and PA have made the bad PA sales tax scene even more worse.

It is not only that Amazon may mistakenly charge tax on some items (tax exempt "shoes"), it is that you will not know and you may further be misled into not knowing when you might owe more tax! The tax on multi-item orders is obscured such that neither mistakes like "shoes", nor uncollected tax, are apparent - instead one is lead to believe all is complete and right. This is aggravated by Amazon, for its own benefit, in that they encourage you to group order items using shipping incentives. The system is stacked against the buyer through complex and unintuitive tax rules and rates that are aggravated by Amazon's not showing details, to benefit our state and Amazon, breeding justifiable consumer apathy, errors, and inequitably.

This is NOT cool! Given the number of purchases most customers make, it is already unreasonable that one must "be involved" in tax on each item. Here it is even more absurd that one must kill themselves unraveling order items, and then have to apply "rules" on each to do so (both Amazon and our state are implicated here).
Side note: the issue here is not about state revenue through taxation, but about laws and equability. Laws should apply evenly to all, be they taxation or other. Here talk is about how one individual buying a "thing" is not paying the same sales tax as another buying the same "thing". The issue of taxation itself, including set rates, is another topic, for another time, and so do not let it distract for the equability issue here. However, the morality of misleading individuals from following the law is relevant here, especially under the disguise of "helping them follow it", since it directly impacts equitable application of the laws.
The tax rules and rates one must apply to figure this out are insane, but I was prompted by the thread at to figure them out and apply them to two of my more interesting orders to audit Amazon's apparently top-secret techniques. Essentially the tax was right, but it was hard to figure out, and I would have never known I owed another $0.44 in tax if I had not done all this work. Given Amazon seems right, it baffles me why they are not more forthcoming. I mean, they appear to have done all the hard work to figure it out, so why not just show some simple info and notes?

Reviewing a couple orders, with tax codes and rates, I conclude as of Nov 2012:
  1. Tax is only calculated for taxable items, for some specific list of vendors (as noted in the original article). I presume these lists change all the time.
  2. Tax is calculated "per item", yet only the order tax total is shown. With rules for tax applied to each item's vendor and product category, not breaking tax down substantially defeats the purpose of showing tax at all. The total is barley informative beyond "trust me", and misleads one into always believing all tax is paid, and is only very painfully audit-able. You may never know if the tax is wrong, or right - you may never know to ask.
    • Further obscure technical note: tax is applied to each item individually, even breaking out "multiple" units (3 of the same "thing" items, shown as one line item, are each calculated individually). While the tax code example in 34.2(a)(3)(ii) shows taxable items combined and then tax applied, Amazon's unique business model of grouping invoices (to both consumer and vendor benefit) might justify breaking down each item for tax, but this is debatable and I welcome anyone digging deeper in the tax code to find clarification. From what I have seen, I think large stores like Giant Eagle do it this way.  And what about the 1% Allegheny tax that the state tax rate insists on at the bottom? What does "if applicable" mean? Is Amazon granted an exception, or am I responsible?
  3. Fractional pennies in tax appear to be calculated right. However, the applicable "Sales and Use Tax Rates" are not intuitive and thus a casual audit would lead one to conclude otherwise ( Amazon aggravates this by not showing the breakdown, nor pointing to the rates applied. Tax rates for pennies are an obscure "tax table", rather than a more intuitive "round" (or even the lesser used mathematical ceiling or floor). The result is tax that tax is randomly "all over the place". But, that is what our state specified. Sadly, Amazon inexplicably makes the whole deal worse by not offering details.
    • Further obscure technical note: the 1% Allegheny tax that the state tax rate insists on at the bottom is unclear about how to apply this to pennies, which is fortunate since Amazon is not dealing with it. But... what about me? Does one just do the 1% on dollars and then use the 6% chart for pennies... or apply the "above-bracketed" 6% chart for "%1"... or what - it is non-sensical? One more nail in the coffin of  this brain-dead PA sales tax implementation.
  • Further obscure technical note: items #2 and #3 are muddied by the fact that the absurd income tax form blows off any rules of calculating tax on individual sales, and any application of partial cent rules for state tax rate. One more nail in the coffin of  this brain-dead and inequitable PA sales tax implementation. Where calculated, Amazon is certainly more equitable than the brain-dead tax form's "can you give us something?"
The bottom line: tax is not shown per item, and in turn calculations and exemptions are not apparent. This makes it a very serious challenge to evaluate the tax, with complexities both in math and rules. Every time one buy things, one is discouraged from auditing, and knowing if they owe more. For example: tax is calculated/collected only for some sellers (like "Amazon LLC", see, but how do I know offhand that no tax was collected on an item for this reason or because the item is not taxable (never mind even knowing that tax was not collected on an item)? Since Amazon has done "half a job", but knows all the info, shouldn't they make this clear on the order which items they have handled, which are not taxable, and which are up to me? Should I have to figure that out by going through each line item and comparing the products and vendors to some lists and applying complex math and rules? Amazon's success is in part due to making ordering items from various sources seamless, but here it becomes a drawback, worse than simply "not doing tax" - wherein at least we knew the order was problematic.

However, regarding any possible Amazon profit motivation: in the end, according to the code, if Amazon collects too little then they are responsible for paying the state the difference, and if they collect too much (and do not refund) then they must pay the state the collected amount. Either way, no windfall to them... assuming someone at the state IRS is watching and can figure it all out too!

My more opinionated conclusions:

Amazon should not be forgiven their obfuscation (no line item tax listing, no help with tax "not collected") and condescension (no explanation like this made convenient, and their reported poor attitude to inquiry and resolution). Amazon could solve a vast amount of the problem without significant impact to itself by noting each line item as nontaxable, taxed, taxable-but-not-taxed, and offering a detailed invoice with a click that breaks down tax as applied by line item (which could also offer a "tax due not paid" and references to tax rules applied).
Slightly tangential: this obfuscation is not an unprecedented technique for Amazon, which is simply pursuing a manipulative precedent set with shipping. Shipping is not broken down in your "cart" for very good reason. Evaluation of what motivates that obvious parallel, and its implication they will address this one, is left to the reader, since I've already been too verbose.
However, all this all goes back to the unreasonable obligation we, through our government we elected, have imposed on ourselves by legislating taxes in such a complex manor that collection is not feasible. Our expecting citizens and businesses to calculate, account, collect, and pay sales taxes on the multitude of individual purchases made in a year, with multitudes of rules (exemptions, tax table, ambiguous calculation order, and state border issues) is ludicrous. The only result can be unfair/inequitable taxing, for which it not reasonable to hold any individual or business accountable (and thus the IRS barely has). So, while one is legitimate in checking each transaction and correcting it if they can, no anger or penalty is appropriate (barring discovery of intentional fraud to benefit them).

This "sales tax" that our elected representatives put in place is absurd and implicitly inequitable because it is too complex to be to implemented. When I mentioned an article about erroneous sales tax on "shoes" to a resident, they replied "shoes are not taxable?" Can you blame them? This sales tax system is essentially entrapment. Is it based on "original sin", or what?

The implicit sales tax system failure is both acknowledged and aggravated by the fact that this over-the-border issue has been ignored too long by the PA IRS, meaning tax has consciously been inequitably collected. The current attempt to "implement" it now has further made obvious ways in which it sucks, which is why it was ignored. Instead of pushing the "bad tax", it should be fixed. We need to make that happen, or accept the crap as our own fault.

And further, since our own legislation made this mess, vendors like Amazon should be forgiven unintentional mistakes that do not give them a windfall. Amazon's tax "per item" may be a mistake, but it may also be right (or are least "ambiguous" and thus allowable). If it is wrong, it seems a legitimate mistake that might be forgiven if the state finds it wrong and they correct it, and they don't take some windfall in the process. Our failure to pay taxes we don't even know about, or can barely even figure out, should be treated the same way.


PA "Sales and Use Tax Rates (REV-221)" ("sales tax table" for pennies)

PA Code TITLE 61 "Revenue", PART I, Subpart B, Article II
Chapter 34. Registration, Recordkeeping and Returns
Paragraph 34.2. Keeping of records.
(a)(3)(B) - Had the vendor incorrectly determined the tax at less [...], he would nevertheless be liable for payment of the correct amount. If he had collected more [...] he would be liable to the Commonwealth for the amount collected unless he showed that he had refunded the overcharge to the purchaser.
(a)(3)(ii) Example:
  1 Coffee percolator $16.80
  2. 1 hacksaw $4.25
  3. 1 pr. doorknobs $3.10
                   Total: $24.15 -> sales tax $1.45
  Tax for $4.15 is: $1.44 on $24, and $0.01 from tables on $0.15

My example orders used to audit (view with fixed width font like "courier"):

Order 1, Nov 18, 2012:
            (6%) (round)(ceiling)(PA Table)
 $13.95 -> 0.8370 (0.84) (0.84)   (0.84) [Paperback] Sold by: Amazon LLC
 $08.39 -> 0.5034 (0.50) (0.51)   (0.51) [Automotive] Sold by: Amazon LLC
 $08.21 -> 0.4926 (0.49) (0.50)   (0.50) [Lawn & Patio] Sold by: Amazon LLC
           ------  ----   ----     ----
           1.8330  1.83   1.85     1.85
Charged Tax $1.85 (2 cents high via "ceiling/table" vs "round")

Order 2, Nov 18, 2012:
            (6%) (round)(ceiling)(PA Table)
 $08.15 -> 0.4890 (0.49) (0.49)   (0.49) [Electronics] Sold by: Amazon LLC
 $08.15 -> 0.4890 (0.49) (0.49)   (0.49) [Electronics] Sold by: Amazon LLC
 $19.10 -> 1.1460 (1.15) (1.15)   (1.14) [Electronics] Sold by: Amazon LLC
 $19.10 -> 1.1460 (1.15) (1.15)   (1.14) [Electronics] Sold by: Amazon LLC
           ------  ----   ----     ----
           3.2700  3.28   3.28     3.26
                              (round)(ceiling)(PA Table)
 $07.28 x 1 = 0.4368 -> 0.4368 (0.44) (0.44)   ([Electronics] Sold by: 3rd Party
                        ------  ----   ----
                        3.7068  3.71   3.72
Charged Tax $3.26 (1/2 cents low vs round/ceiling. no indication I owe 44 cents)

Note on Order 2, the "x2" items were shown as one "line item", but not taxed that way:
 $08.15 x 2 = $16.30 -> 0.9780 (0.98) (0.98)   (0.98) [Electronics] Sold by: Amazon LLC
 $19.10 x 2 = $38.20 -> 2.2920 (2.29) (2.30)   (2.30) [Electronics] Sold by: Amazon LLC
                        ------  ----   ----     ----
                        3.2700  3.27   3.28     3.28

Make this info better!

I did my best here, and admit I did not finish some things like "each item's tax calculated". Can you improve? Build on my work with the links I found to the tax codes. Send me info to "csm" at my domain "forus" with more stuff and we can work to make this better.

Either way, the above text is yours to use as you please. If you do, I only ask you try and be honest and as objective as possible in what you write about, and that you send me any corrections you find in my stuff so I can improve it.