Ruling pins online travel tax issue on lawmakers

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Pointing to what he described as “ambiguities” in state law, a Leon County circuit judge this week wrote that it is up to the Legislature to resolve a fight about taxes paid by online-travel companies, reports the News Service of Florida. Circuit Judge James Shelfer last month verbally ruled in favor of online-travel companies, such as Orbitz and Expedia, in a long-running lawsuit with counties about the amount of tourist-development taxes that the companies owe. Shelfer followed Monday with a written order that said the Legislature and the state Department of Revenue have not clearly stated what the companies are required to pay. “At the end of the day, it is a legislative branch function to decide what revenues are taxed, and it is an executive branch function for enforcement of the taxing statutes,” Shelfer wrote. “Both branches have been asked to bring some clarity to this issue. Unless and until they do so, the court should not expand the scope of the taxing authority by assuming that the Legislature intends to include this completely new method of doing business under the currently existing taxing scheme.” Shelfer ruled in a case filed by 17 counties, which allege that online-travel companies have not paid the full amount of hotel bed taxes that are owed. The dispute centers on whether the companies should remit taxes only on the amounts of customer payments that go to room rentals or also on the amounts that companies collect in fees. Lawmakers have repeatedly looked at the issue in recent years but have not taken action. An attorney for the counties has said they will appeal Shelfer’s ruling to the 1st District Court of Appeal.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.