Taxes Matter 14: Cross-Border Shopping and Liquor

The Portland Press Herald ran an editorial on September 8 stating that lowering Maine’s liquor prices is bad public policy. Their logic: lowering prices is bad because it might encourage more people to drink, which would unleash other social costs.

The problem with that logic is that Mainers already have easy access to cheaper booze: they can simply buy it across the border in New Hampshire.

Cross-border shopping in New Hampshire is a major pastime for Mainers. We all know people who make a regular run to buy liquor, cigarettes or other everyday items in New Hampshire. When Mainers go on out-of-state vacations, they take orders from friends and family for the quick stop at the Portsmouth liquor store on the way home.

Put simply, with a little planning, there is virtually no one in Maine who doesn’t already have access to cheaper liquor in New Hampshire. In fact, as shown in the picture above, New Hampshire even pays you to come buy it. The state offers you a $25 coupon, which more than covers your gas bill to make the trip. As the ad in Down East magazine puts it:

“Explore Endless Summer Savings at your nearest New Hampshire Liquor and Wine Outlet—conveniently located across the state. Offering the best selection of wine and spirits at the lowest prices in America.”

In addition, New Hampshire is running a larger ad campaign, called “Load Up New Hampshire.” The state’s online website, www.loadupnh.com, proclaims:

“NO SALES TAX! Every Day, Every Year!

Substantial savings on all beer, wine, and ales

Up to 30.5 cents savings per gallon of gasoline

No state withholding on lottery ticket winnings

As much as $26.70 savings per carton of cigarettes”

Furthermore, the Portland Press Herald editorial misses a much larger point. Think about this: Why does New Hampshire go through all the trouble of running glitzy ads just to sell liquor? Because it isn’t just about liquor.

They know that once you get to New Hampshire, you’ll stay for other shopping and take advantage of other lower taxes on items such as cigarettes and gasoline—plus, there’s no general sales tax in the “Live Free or Die” state.

Of course, retail stores do this all the time. Take any “Marketing 101” course, and one of the first tactics you’ll learn is how to use targeted sales to lure customers who will stay to buy other goods—often negating their initial savings. From a tax perspective, customers save when buying just about anything in New Hampshire, compared to buying it in Maine.

Add up all of these cross-border shopping trips, and you end up with a very big problem. Recent MHPC research has estimated that Maine is losing up to $2.2 billion in retail sales each and every year to New Hampshire. This has created a 40-mile desert of big-box retailers on the Maine side of the border. At the same time, big-box retailers in New Hampshire locate as closely to the Maine border as possible.

Cross-border shopping also hits state and local government coffers. Higher Maine retail sales would mean greater income, sales and property tax revenue. Higher tax revenue would enable reductions in tax rates, which would fuel more economic growth.

Unfortunately, instead of this virtuous tax cycle, Maine has a vicious tax cycle that drives Mainers to spend their hard-earned money elsewhere.

Equalizing Maine’s liquor prices would be an important first step toward taking back our economy. Without the savings from liquor, the overall incentive to shop in New Hampshire is greatly reduced, especially with today’s high gasoline prices.

At some point, Maine’s policymakers have to come to the realization that Maine’s tax policy must become competitive in at least one area. Why not start with liquor?

But wait there’s more, the Union Leader is reporting that New Hampshire’s liquor sales are soaring:

Retail sales at New Hampshire Liquor & Wine Outlets since July 1 are up $9.8 million year-to-date, an increase of 9.4 percent over the previous fiscal year.

Spirit sales increased 9.5 percent and wine sales increased 9.3 percent, according to the New Hampshire Liquor Commission.

The commission said it is seeing continued growth at new and recently relocated stores across the state. Seven state liquor stores have been relocated over the past two years as part of a goal to update them statewide. Collectively, those stores experienced $7.9 million in growth in fiscal year 2012, which ended June 30, the commission reported.

This story originated as an editorial for The Maine Wire.

Taxes Matter 13: Maine’s Sales Tax, Tax Zappers and the Laffer Curve, Oh My!

Old Cash Register 2
Creative Commons License photo credit: OhMyGouda in Florida

I just posted this on The Maine Heritage Policy Center’s blog (Maine Freedom Forum), but I also wanted to share this with Wealth Alchemy’s audience because so many of you will likely be seeing this debate coming soon to your own state.

Also, we all need to realize that the retail sales tax is one of the worst taxes out there and is simply on its last legs–all states should be working to eliminate it. The better alternative would be to enact a Business Enterprise Tax as New Hampshire has done which is also one reason why New Hampshire has one of the lowest business tax burdens in the country. Read on . . .

Today the Kennebec Journal has a story about the rise of sales tax zapper computer programs that enable businesses to under-report their taxable sales and lower their sales tax bill. Of course, the article casts Maine’s state government as the victim of unscrupulous business owners:

But some lawmakers are concerned the state may be losing significant revenue from the latest computer technology, called “zappers” because they alter sales records in a more subtle way that still yields a lot of cash for the seller.

“It’s clearly subversive and against our process of treating people fairly, equitably and everyone paying their fair share of the tax burden,” said Rep. Garry Knight, R-Livermore Falls, co-chairman of the Legislature’s Taxation Committee. “I would suggest that zappers be outlawed in this state.”

He said his panel has not looked at the expanding use of technology to cheat on tax laws, but he said if it is happening in other states, Maine should assume some is happening here.

With a zapper program, a $6 burger-and-fries combo at a restaurant, for example, could be altered by the software to reflect a $4 burger sale. In Maine, that would mean 14 cents going to the restaurant owner that should be paid in taxes. In other states, that has added up to a lot of lost revenue.

A retailer can have the program change the sales price of an item. For example, a $20 shirt is reported as selling for $18. In Maine, that’s a loss of a dime; but all of those nickels, dimes and pennies add up.

A retailer can have the program change the sales price of an item. For example, a $20 shirt is reported as selling for $18. In Maine, that’s a loss of a dime; but all of those nickels, dimes and pennies add up.

“Tax evasion is something that we always should take seriously,” said Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, the lead Democrat on the Taxation Committee. “Zappers are something that Maine Revenue Services is not able to track. It is a very difficult enforcement problem.”

He said Maine should watch what other states are doing and consider adopting policies and laws that seem to work the best. He agreed Maine may want to outlaw the computer programs, although he is not sure how effective that may be.

As usual, policymakers are simply treating this as a tax compliance issue when, in reality, this zapper issue is a symptom of a much larger problem–Maine’s sales tax is suffocating the state’s retailers. A few month’s ago I released a study which showed that Maine is annually losing an estimated $2.2 billion in retail sales to New Hampshire thanks to tax-fueled cross-border shopping by Mainers. Lowering the sales tax would encourage more Mainers to stay home to do their shopping. As a result, Maine’s retailers would not be struggling quite as much as they are now and having to resort to desperate measures such as sales tax avoidance.

In fact, the analysis suggests that Maine sales rate of 5 percent is very likely on the back-side of the Laffer curve. In other words, a lower sales tax rate would generate more economic growth and higher tax collections from other taxes, such as income taxes, the remaining sales tax, property taxes, etc., that it would offset the lower sales tax collections stemming from the tax rate reduction. It’s the closest thing to a “free lunch” that one can get in tax policy. Yet, policymakers have just left the sandwich on the table.

No, the real victims here are Maine’s businesses who have historically been treated by policymakers as a “money pinata.” Now, on top of the sorry economy, Maine businesses, especially smaller businesses, will have to live in fear that the next knock on their door will be an agent from the Maine Revenue Service as they attempt to crack down on these sales tax zappers. This will be an added tax compliance cost for all businesses which is especially onerous and demeaning to the overwhelming majority who play-by-the-rules.

Maine Ahead Economic Roundtable

I recently participated in an economic roundtable for Maine Ahead magazine which also included Charlie Colgan (Economics Professor at the University of Southern Maine) and Laurie Lachance (Director of the Maine Development Foundation). 

If you prefer, you can listen to the full interviews via podcast below:

Podcast for my interview:

Podcast for Laurie Lachance:

Podcast for Charlie Colgan: