published Saturday, June 22nd, 2013

Eatherly: Retail stores need to level the playing field

By Donnie Eatherly

I am writing as a businessman who operates a facility here in Chattanooga on Ringgold Road, and who sells products online. I value both venues.

For many years, our mail order -- and now, online only -- competitors have told me that we just needed to work harder or fight harder for that customer. Well, we've been doing it with our family-owned, high-performance parts and accessory business for over 50 years with one arm tied behind our backs.

Because we operate a physical store and employ people here in Tennessee, we have to collect sales tax. Thanks to the federal government, the online-only out-of-state stores don't. That gives them an almost 10 percent price advantage, and the customers know it.

The government is putting those of us who employ people locally, who sponsor community events, do business with local banks and support local charities, at a disadvantage. All we want is a fair fight.

The Marketplace Fairness Act would fix the problem. The tax is already owed. Theoretically you, the consumer, are supposed to send it to the state. But almost no one does. That means less money for critical services like education and public safety.

Those on the other side of the argument have said that this would be too complicated or too burdensome and costly for online sellers to collect the sales taxes.

I say it's as easy as my online competitors have made it for our customers to stand in our showroom and take a picture of the part number or bar code of a carburetor with their smartphone and get the lowest price without sales taxes. I say the Internet will make it as easy or easier for online competitors to calculate the sales taxes if my customer chose to buy it from them through free software provided by those sates who chose to opt in.

Congress has been talking a lot lately about rights. Don't those of us who have worked hard and in some cases struggled for years to keep people employed and invest in our local communities have the right to operate our businesses on a level playing field when it comes to something as basic as collecting sales tax?

I salute Sen. Lamar Alexander for his work in helping to draft the bill. I appreciate Sen. Bob Corker for voting for it. They helped get it passed in the Senate.

Now it goes to the House. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann has an opportunity to stand up for small businesses, not just in Chattanooga, but across the 3rd Congressional District and all of Tennessee. Gov. Bill Haslam, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and House Speaker Beth Harwell all support this bill. They say the income it represents, from a tax already owed but not collected, will help hold down or reduce other state taxes -- and helps ensure we will never have to consider an income tax.

Fleischmann, please support the businesses that support you, and vote in favor of this bill.

Donnie Eatherly is president and co-owner of P&E Distributors, Inc. with two retail locations in Tennessee and a member of the Alliance for Main Street Fairness Small Business Advisory Board.

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