COLOR us less than persuaded by the argument that some Oklahoma convenience stores were targeted by the Oklahoma Tax Commission because of the color of the skin or ethnicity of the owners.
This is a time when people are dividing over black-and-white issues — witness the Tulsa shootings last week and the Trayvon Martin case — but what the tax commission's computers did remained solidly in the gray scale.
Owners of 37 convenience stores have sued the commission claiming they were audited because of their race or religion. At stake are millions of dollars in sales tax revenues that the state may be owed. State lawyers must now defend yet another ethnic-related lawsuit, not because of a state question targeting a religion (such as the 2010 Sharia law referendum) but because colorblind OTC computers found discrepancies.
When the computers compared records of wholesale purchases by the stores against records of sales tax remittances, unusual gaps were found. This is an indication — but not necessarily proof — that sales taxes collected at the stores weren't remitted in the proper amounts.
The attorney representing the plaintiffs said the audits targeted Muslim or Vietnamese shopkeepers. Actually, they targeted not the owners but the discrepancies.
Something these stores have in common other than minority ownership status is that they're generally small, independent, one-off stores rather than links in a chain. It's possible that discrepancies are easier to spot because of the smaller sales volume.
In no case is the amount of contested sales tax payments less than $100,000. Some top $1 million. The Oklahoman's Randy Ellis reported that one store bought beer from a wholesaler for $236,737 in 2008 but reported less than $70,000 in net sales for beer and other taxable products. Any computer program that doesn't flag that kind of gap isn't worth the color of money.
The plaintiffs have a right to challenge audit findings, but the tinge of racism in the lawsuit's claims is overwrought. Tax Commission employees have an obligation to ensure collection of sales taxes. Consumers who pay sales taxes want to know that none of it is being kept by retailers.
Sales tax avoidance by consumers themselves is a problem in Oklahoma because the state uses the honor system to collect sales taxes on purchases made from remote vendors over the Internet. This money is supposed to be reported on personal income tax forms, but enforcement is difficult at best.
For local retailers who collect sales taxes (and who must compete with the supposedly tax-free remote retailers), the deck seems stacked. Nevertheless, nothing is evident that indicates the targeted convenience stores were chosen because of the owners' race, skin color, ethnicity or religion. They were chosen because of numbers, not surnames.
In a time when people are dividing over black-and-white issues, the discrimination claim is sure to get attention. We should use the gray matter in our brains to figure out if more than accounting discrepancies are in play in this case. Our view is that the only relevant color here is the green found on U.S. currency.