Arguments fly anew on eve of revote over Amazon deal

COLUMBIA --- Opposing sides of a proposed sales tax exemption for Amazon.com rallied Tuesday in preparation of a second vote in the South Carolina House, as supporters accused big-box retailers of steering the debate in their national e-commerce fight and opponents called it an issue of fairness for all retailers.

More than 100 people gathered at the Statehouse urging the House to approve the deal, including legislative leaders, local officials and U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson. Moments after that news conference, a smaller group of tea party activists and the president of the state's small-business chamber stepped up to ask legislators to again reject the deal.

Hours after last month's rejection, Amazon said it was abandoning construction and plans to create 1,250 jobs with full health benefits at a new distribution center in Lexington County. The Seattle-based online retailer sought a five-year exemption from collecting sales taxes from online shoppers in South Carolina, part of a deal brokered under former Gov. Mark Sanford.

Amazon doesn't collect the tax now, but its presence in the state would otherwise require it to do so.

A revote is expected this afternoon. Legislators who approved the same deal five years ago for QVC in Florence say that the debate over incentives has changed and that this time, the governor opposes the proposal. Gov. Nikki Haley, who approved the QVC break as a House member, has criticized the deal at meetings around the state.

Haley says that the legislation for QVC has expired and that the company is now collecting the sales tax.

"The governor is working to create a level playing field for small businesses, one where those here and those coming know that they will have every opportunity at a fair chance for success, and where they know that government will not be picking winners and losers," Haley spokesman Rob Godfrey said.

Amazon officials have said they support legislators' efforts.

"THOSE PEOPLE THAT are out there in search of a job, those people out there looking for hope, hope is coming," said Rep. Todd Rutherford, one of several Democrats at the news conference organized by Lexington County Republicans.

Rutherford and other speakers took jabs at the Alliance for Main Street Fairness, a coalition organized by Wal-Mart, Target and other big-box retailers that includes small businesses across the state. The Virginia-based group formed the state chapter in March to fight the Amazon deal.

"Big-box retailers and small businesses are equally affected," said Brian Flynn, the spokesman for the state chapter. "It's just not fair for government to pick one company to give an advantage over others."

House Majority Leader Kenny Bingham, whose district includes the Amazon site, said South Carolina can't solve the national e-commerce issue. Rejecting the deal means the state gets nothing; accepting it means it gets jobs, a $100 million capital investment and a $60 million annual payroll that will be spent in local businesses, he said. Plus, Amazon would start to collect the sales tax in less than five years, he said.

"The only way for us to level the playing field is for us to get them here," he said. "This is not an either/or. This is a both."

Sen. Jake Knotts, R-West Columbia, said the Amazon jobs would lead to more jobs in shipping, at the nearby airport and UPS hub, and in trucking.

Construction at the one-million-square-foot warehouse is roughly 20 percent complete, said Scott Adams, a former chairman of the Lexington County Chamber of Commerce. If the vote fails, a roof will be put on and the facility will be mothballed. Recruiting anyone to fill the space would be tough, Adams said.

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