Haley Barbour lobbying for the online sales tax he championed in office

Back on K Street after nearly a decade-long absence, Haley Barbour is lobbying for an online sales tax he championed as Mississippi governor.   

The Republican power player has registered to lobby for six clients at BGR Group, the K Street firm he co-founded in 1991. Registrations and first-quarter reports filed since Friday show Barbour is lobbying for Chevron, Southern Company Services, the Mortgage Insurance Companies of America, Tenax Aerospace, the Canadian National Railroad and the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA), which is pushing for an online sales tax.

The companies and trade groups are the first lobbying clients Barbour has taken on since returning to BGR after leaving the governor’s office in January.

One of Barbour’s colleagues at BGR said the ex-governor has long supported the rights of states to make decisions about taxes.

“I think what he would say is it’s not an online sales tax, but it’s allowing states to enforce their own sales tax laws and collect revenue that is owed to them,” said Loren Monroe, a principal at BGR. “It was an issue he felt strongly about as a governor. It’s very consistent with his personal beliefs.” 

A spokesman for RILA said Barbour was a passionate advocate for an online sales tax as Mississippi governor.

“He spoke very passionately at the end of his term about the need for e-fairness, and we brought him to speak to our board about a wide range of topics, including e-fairness,” said Jason Brewer, RILA’s vice president of communications and advocacy.

Brewer and Monroe both said no talks about Barbour lobbying for RILA took place until after he left office and returned to K Street.

“There weren’t any conversations until he was physically back in the firm,” Monroe said. The BGR lobbyist said the firm started talking to RILA about representation in late January and began lobbying for the group in March.

BGR accidentally filed a lobbying registration for the Alliance for Main Street Fairness — a business group that also supports an online sales tax — instead of for RILA. Monroe said that was a clerical error and the record will be amended Monday to show that BGR is lobbying for RILA, not the Alliance.

Barbour is a former chairman of the Republican National Committee and the Republican Governors Association. He considered a presidential run last year but decided against it after determining he didn’t have the “fire in the belly” it would take to win.

Brewer said Barbour is considered “a tremendous asset” by RILA.

“We started having conversations with him and we hired him in March. We thought he would be a tremendous asset,” Brewer said. “We decided to reach out and hire him as an advocate.”

Brewer said Barbour spoke on a panel at an annual meeting of RILA’s executive board in late January. The trade group also noted Barbour’s support for an online sales tax in a press release last year.

Brewer said Barbour and other lobbyists at BGR would lobby for RILA on a number of issues, including the online sales tax proposal, which is the trade group’s top legislative priority.

In his farewell address to the Mississippi Legislature in January, Barbour made the case for an online sales tax despite the misgivings of some in his party.

“It is time for the federal government to allow Mississippi and every other state to choose to enforce our laws and to collect these taxes. They are owed us today, and there is no longer any public policy reason to keep us from collecting,” Barbour said. “Indeed, good public policy says it is past time that our brick-and-mortar merchants on Main Street and in our shopping centers get a level playing field with Amazon and the Internet. That they get fair treatment for paying our taxes.”

That speech followed a November 2011 letter by Barbour sent to Sens. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) saying he supported their legislation that would institute an online sales tax.

Enzi and Alexander are among senators from both parties backing the Marketplace Fairness Act, which would allow states to collect sales taxes on purchases made within their borders from online retailers that are out of state. Similar legislation has been introduced in the House.

Under a Supreme Court ruling issued in 1992, state governments can’t require companies to collect sales tax on online purchases unless the business is physically located in their state.

Retailers argue the sales-tax exemption gives their online competitors an unfair advantage. RILA, the National Retail Federation and Amazon are lobbying in support of the legislation, but they have run into opposition from eBay Inc. and other electronic retailers, which say an online sales tax would hurt small businesses.

Wary of the proposal being called a tax increase, lobbyists who support an online sales tax paint it as a states’-rights issue and have pointed to Republican backers such as Barbour, Maine Gov. Paul LePage and Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell.

Monroe said the firm is doing state as well as federal lobbying for RILA, with Barbour talking to state governors and lawmakers on Capitol Hill about the online sales tax proposal.

“Our scope of our work is primarily state, but he is talking to members of Congress,” Monroe said.

Barbour is returning to his K Street roots by registering under the Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA). 

“I think because he is high-profile and he does work very hard, he’s proud to be a registered advocate for certain clients,” Monroe said. “We at the firm and the governor don’t play games when it comes to LDA or [the Foreign Agents Registration Act]. We play by the rules.

“When he takes on a client, he’s fully on board.”