Sales tax push yields $4,100

Comptroller pleased with effort to collect on out-of-state buys

August 06, 1999|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

The state's much-publicized effort to claim $50 million in uncollected sales taxes has netted exactly $4,100.

But two months after announcing a crackdown on people who buy furniture out of state without paying taxes, Maryland Comptroller William Donald Schaefer says, "I'm satisfied."

State inspectors have found 108 untaxed furniture shipments at state weigh stations, prompting 92 letters to Maryland purchasers, who had paid $1,867.35 by Aug. 4, spokesman Mike Golden says.

In addition, according to Golden, another $2,232.65 has come in voluntarily from people who learned about the obscure tax from Schaefer's efforts. They include the comptroller's new enforcement chief, Larry W. Tolliver, who paid $300 for furniture he bought in North Carolina before taking the job.

Inspectors have also cited 12 transient roadside vendors selling furniture from trucks -- including one peddling a reclining chair he had been unable to deliver. The drivers received summonses to appear in court and are liable for a maximum $500 fine, Golden says.

"We have only just begun. You'll see that number grow," Golden says about efforts to capture the estimated $50 million a year in uncollected sales taxes. The issue of how to collect sales taxes from out-of-state and fast-growing electronic Internet sales that undercut local businesses is increasingly catching the attention of government leaders.

Although Schaefer's initial news conference was held May 24, the Maryland enforcement effort didn't really get under way until mid-June, Golden says, when Tolliver, former state police superintendent and Anne Arundel County police chief, became head of a new investigative services unit in the comptroller's office. Most untaxed shipments found so far were from North Carolina, with a few from Delaware.

"I think that's very good. I think the main thing is the education program," Schaefer says, brushing aside criticism of his efforts.

"We're going to continue to do it. I don't mind the criticism. The furniture men know we're trying to help Maryland business. We're letting people in small business know that if they have a problem, they can come to us," the former governor says.

But the critics haven't gone away.

In addition to newspaper letter writers and editorialists who have ridiculed the campaign and Schaefer, Del. John R. Leopold, an Anne Arundel County Republican, says Schaefer's campaign is "counterproductive."

In fact, Leopold says, the state could save more money by eliminating the $74,000 job created for Tolliver than by collecting unpaid furniture sales taxes.

"Here we have the comptroller, rather than being friendly, we have an anti-consumer policy -- especially if it can't be done consistently," Leopold says. He will introduce legislation next year, he says, to prevent end-runs around the General Assembly in creating jobs and programs.

Wayne Laumann, a Perry Hall furniture dealer and president of the Maryland Home Furnishings Association, defended Schaefer and criticized Leopold's comments as "appalling."

"As a Maryland business that pays tens of thousands of dollars in taxes and collects nearly three-quarters of a million in sales taxes, I'd like him [Leopold] to tell me which taxes I should choose to pay. For an elected official to criticize the comptroller's office for doing nothing more than obeying the law is irresponsible," he said.

Schaefer had a briefer suggestion for Leopold and others who don't want him to enforce the 50-year old tax law. If Leopold doesn't like the tax, "let him put a law in" to eliminate it, the former governor says.

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