Scott Brown’s Feb. comments raise questions about his online sales tax stance

At the time, he said, ‘I’m not sure what the answer is’ on imposing the tax

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Scott Brown, who only recently called U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen’s decision to oppose an Internet sales tax a “no-brainer,” apparently was undecided about the issue several months before he entered the New Hampshire race.

Back in February, at a forum at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., he was asked about the proposed Internet tax by a sophomore at the college. He called the query an “interesting question,” but added, “I’m not sure what the answer is.”

Scott’s position back then – or lack thereof – was different than the entire New Hampshire’s congressional delegation, who had come out swinging hard against the tax, known as the Marketplace Fairness Act, the last time it came up in 2013.

In fact Brown’s fellow Republican, U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a member of the Senate Commerce Committee, has been a particularly vocal opponent of an online tax.

“This would be especially devastating for Internet retailers in my home state of New Hampshire – a state that has neither a sales nor an income tax. The bill could lead to Internet retailers in all states being forced to become tax collectors for thousands of tax jurisdictions across the country," Ayotte said in July. Ayotte was joined at the time by Shaheen and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas, in signing a letter opposing the tax.

But the tax has divided people in both parties, and even the New Hampshire Retail Association has not taken a position on it.

“It’s a huge issue for us,” said Nancy Kyle, president and CEO of the Retail Association. “It’s hard to be quiet about it. We are really split down the middle.”

On the one hand, “New Hampshire has made a sovereign decision to not impose a sales tax, and continuing that environment is of paramount importance to independent retailers who benefit from the cross-border business,” she said.

On the other hand, major national chains that do business in multiple states support the federal effort to "level the playing field," with online businesses like Amazon and eBay.

Brown struggled with the issue before he announced his campaign in New Hampshire, though he had already been visiting the state frequently and there had been rampant speculation in local, regional and national media about just what office he would be seeking.

It was in the midst of this media attention that he told the Cornell student on Feb. 6 that you “have to strike a balance” on the Internet sales tax because “you don’t want to take away from the innovation and creativity of what's happening online … But then you have the typical, say, mom-and-pop, let's say local bicycle store … you're going to go down and try to compete, but you can go online, avoid sales tax, get a better price, and what’s happening is a lot of people are going into these stores — they’re actually taking the picture, looking it up, and then getting it cheaper.”

He then added: “I’m not sure what the answer is.”

But he did say that he had been working on the issue when he was in the U.S Senate representing Massachusetts from 2010 to 2012, before he was defeated by current U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

“We started to really get into it when I was there,” he told the Cornell audience. “The ability for me to be there got cut short, so I wasn't able to work on it, but I know the key is to try to strike a balance, so not only can you allow for the benefits of the brick-and-mortar folks … but also have the ability for that innovation and creativity in the new way of creating jobs, which is through multimedia, and you know obviously the Internet and Twitter, Facebook and all that, Amazon, etc.”

The Lowell Sun ran an article about the Internet sales tax during the Brown-Warren race, but neither candidate responded to questions about it, and it was not an issue in the race.

Warren ended up voting for the tax.

Brown officially announced his campaign to challenge Shaheen in April and has not released his position on the Internet sales tax, but in an interview with the Londonderry local access cable channel, in criticizing Shaheen, he said, “Senator Shaheen – there's not a tax she hasn't supported. I think she finally voted against the Internet tax, but that's a no-brainer."

Brown spokesperson Elizabeth Guyton said that his statement on the Londonderry TV show indicated that he opposes the tax.

“Unlike Jeanne Shaheen, Scott Brown has never voted for a tax increase and does not support an online sales tax,” said Guyton, who would not elaborate on why Brown is no longer undecided about the tax.

The Shaheen campaign issued the following statement: "Scott Brown is pulling a Scott Brown, trying to deceive voters, and concealing his support for implementing an Internet sales tax on New Hampshire small businesses. The fact is that just a few months ago, Brown was suggesting he was open to the tax and refusing to take a clear stand. Brown is willing to say anything to get himself back to the U.S. Senate, where he can't be trusted to stand up for New Hampshire – not on the Internet sales tax or any other important issue for our state."

Meanwhile, the state’s two U.S. representatives and their opponents all reiterated their opposition to the tax.

“By allowing states to force online retailers to impose a sales tax on their customers, small businesses would be swamped with more regulations, more rules and more paperwork – not to mention a harmful tax increase that would hurt their bottom line,” said U.S. Rep. Ann Kuster, D-2nd Dist.

“An online sales tax would force new tax collections and audit requirements on the people and online retailers of America, and would unfairly victimize small businesses and the middle-class,” said Kuster’s opponent, Republican Marilinda Garcia.

U.S. Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, D-1st Dist., said her position was the same as in 2013, when she said, “I believe that, as currently constructed, this legislation is not fair to states like New Hampshire.”

Her opponent, Republican Frank Guinta, said, “Forcing small businesses here in the Granite State to effectively become tax collectors for other states is an absurd proposition. This would devastate the middle class, inhibit growth, curtail investment and is anathema to our limited taxation, limited government, live free or die mindset.”

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