It's going to be a lot tougher to buy a tax-free painting of Elvis in Maryland.
The state comptroller is cracking down on those here-today, gone-tomorrow entrepreneurs who bring furniture, stuffed animals or velvet artworks into Maryland and sell them by the side of the road with- out going through such sticky formalities as collecting and paying sales tax.
As of yesterday, merchants selling taxable items from a temporary location were required to have a special transient vendor license. And now, any law enforcement officer in the state is authorized to stop and require a vendor to either show a permit or stop selling.
The increased revenue from forcing these would-be Sam Waltons to collect the state's 5 percent share will hardly be enough to solve Maryland's budget crisis. But Marvin Bond, a spokesman for Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein, said the crackdown addresses one of the most frequent complaints that tax collectors hear when they go on radio talk shows.
For some reason, the very sight of these roadside retailers gets under the skins of traditional merchants, who suspect that many of the transient vendors are shirking a burden their store-bound brethren cannot escape.
The suspicions are justified, Mr. Bond said. About two years ago, Maryland tax officials -- including Mr. Goldstein -- began to routinely stop and check the credentials of transient vendors. At that time, Mr. Bond said, about half had no sales tax license.
Two years of checking by auditors has reduced the number of transients without sales tax licenses to about one in eight or nine, Mr. Bond said. But holding a license and actually paying the tax are two different things.
That's where the new license comes in. Mr. Bond describes it as "an enforcement tool."
The transient vendor license must be renewed every 90 days, and to receive the permit the merchant must hold a basic Maryland sales tax license and be up to date on tax payments. Mr. Bond said the state has already received 300 applications and has issued 100 licenses, but another 200 applicants either owed taxes or didn't have a sales tax license.
Mr. Bond said the comptroller's office was now in the process of getting the word out to state and local police agencies about the new role that police have in enforcing the tax law. He said the initial police reaction to the effort to bolster state revenue has been positive.
"In many cases, it contributes to their salaries," he said.
Roadside merchants will have to show both a basic license and a transient license. Violators can be charged with a misdemeanor and fined up to $2,500 if convicted.
The rules do not apply to produce or seafood dealers, whose wares are exempt from the sales tax. Nor do they affect exhibitors at flea markets and trade shows, who are not considered transients under the law.
Mr. Bond said that both permanent sales tax licenses and transient licenses can be ordered from out of state and delivered the same day by fax.
Licenses can be obtained by calling (410) 225-1300 in Baltimore. Callers from other parts of Maryland can use a toll-free number, (800) 492-1751.
But Mr. Bond does not expect the new policy to bring a complete end to the irate calls to radio talk shows.
"You're never going to get all of these people," he said.