Most states have historically not subjected foreign-source income to state income tax. Consequently, since the passage of TCJA, the vast majority of states have opted not to tax GILTI (with most states explicitly decoupling from GILTI or excluding at least 95% of GILTI from the state tax base) or repatriation income (only five states have failed to decouple or provide significant relief).

Unfortunately, the Nebraska Department of Revenue (DOR), despite for years consistently holding that foreign source (Subpart F) income is deductible as dividends received, ruled last year that GILTI and repatriation income are not deductible. The DOR ruling would start taxing foreign source income, a significant departure from Nebraska’s tax policies as established by the Legislature.

The Nebraska Legislature may decide the question, with today’s introduction of LB 1203. The bill would clarify the state’s policy that GILTI and repatriation income are deductible, as foreign dividends received or deemed to be received. The bill frames the policy as a clarification, and therefore applicable to tax filings prior to the bill’s effective date.

The STAR Partnership expects GILTI to be a continued important issue in the 2020 legislative cycle, and plans to continue to advocate for the exclusion of GILTI from the state tax bases either through legislation or administrative guidance.

On January 21, A. 9112 was introduced in the New York Assembly. An identical Senate companion bill, S. 6102, has been referred to the Senate Budget & Revenues Committee after being introduced in May 2019. The bills would impose an additional 5% tax on the gross income of “every corporation which derives income from the data individuals of this state share with such corporations.” The bills do not provide further detail or limitation on the scope of the proposed new imposition language.

The bills would also establish a six-member Data Fund Board, to invest the tax revenue collected and distribute net earnings “to each taxpayer of the state” in a manner determined by the Board. If enacted without amendment, the bills would take effect 180 days after being signed into law.

As written, the proposed New York tax would unconstitutionally apply to all income worldwide earned by a company deriving income from data from New Yorkers. A state tax on a multistate business must “be fairly apportioned to reflect the business conducted in the State.”

The tax as written is so broad it would apply to essentially every business. Every business collects data and uses it to market or complete a sale, and any corporation with data-derived income from New York customers would be subject to the new tax on their total revenue. “Data” is a broad term. If a company collects zip codes or phone numbers at checkout, asks for email address to join a mailing list, counts customers coming in or out of the store, collects website click or open data, or asks for information from customers, such as their size or shipping address, before making a sale, it apparently would be subject to this tax. For many such businesses, a gross receipts tax at a 5% rate would wipe out all profits, equivalent to an over 100% corporate income tax. At that point, a tax for engaging in data collection might become so punitive it violates the Due Process Clause. Another obvious due process problem is that the lack of definitions and the broad sweep of this proposal could invalidate it on void for vagueness grounds.

Any meaningful attempts to address these constitutional issues, such as by specifically applying the tax only on big tech companies, would add new problems under the Permanent Internet Tax Freedom Act (PITFA). A tax on digital use of data while the non-digital use of data is not similarly taxed would run afoul of PITFA’s ban on tax discrimination against electronic commerce.

First Maryland, then Nebraska, now New York. The repeated introduction of targeted taxes on digital companies early in 2020 seems to be the start of an alarming trend of legally suspect tax proposals that we are keeping a close eye on.

For years, Delaware has used contract audit firms to enforce their unclaimed property laws and paid them based, at least partially, on the amount recovered. Motivated by this financial reward and empowered as an agent of the state, the contract-auditing firms with the State’s complicity harass holders, inflate liabilities by deploying aggressive estimation techniques and engage in other questionable practices to maximize their bounty.

Maybe not anymore. In a federal court filing on January 10, Delaware’s brief appended as an exhibit its most recent contract signed December 31, 2019, with Kelmar, one of the more notorious unclaimed property contract audit firms. The new contract states that Kelmar will be paid at set hourly rates for general ledger work, instead of their prior compensation, which was largely seen to be contingent upon recovery. (Securities-related work remains contingency-based.)

It will be welcome news if this heralds an end to the madness of contingency compensation for contract auditors. Holders have voiced complaints for decades, often forced to litigate to prove Kelmar’s method incorrect. The US Chamber has detailed the flaws of using contract auditors and urged a ban to the practice, and judges have tried to rein in their behavior. The National Conference of State Legislatures adopted a resolution disapproving of the practice. After all of these years and horror stories, the message might have finally gotten through.

On January 16, a bill (H. 756) was introduced in the Vermont Assembly that would repeal the sales and use tax exemption for remotely accessed prewritten computer software. If enacted as introduced, the exemption would no longer protect Vermont taxpayers from this legally suspect tax beginning July 1, 2020.

This is not the first time the Vermont Legislature has considered the issue of taxing cloud software. After the Department of Taxes administratively issued guidance interpreting the sales tax to apply to all prewritten software (including cloud-based software) in 2010, legislative actions were taken to curtail this administrative overreach—including a 2012 temporary moratorium and the aforementioned 2015 exemption—to preclude the imposition of sales tax on the mere accessing of prewritten computer software.

Practice Note: With the introduction of H. 756, Vermont is at risk of reverting back to the dark ages of cloud tax uncertainty that existed throughout the first half of the past decade. As noted below, there are substantial policy and legal flaws with this proposal that counsel against repeal of the exemption. Vermont Legislative Counsel estimates that repealing the sales tax exemption for cloud software would generate six to seven million dollars of revenue in FY 2021—hardly enough to justify the additional administrative complexities and disputes that will arise on audit (and potential litigation arising therefrom). Specifically, even if the cloud tax exemption is repealed, substantial uncertainty remains under Vermont law as to whether there is sufficient authority to impose sales or use tax on cloud service providers. Disturbing the existing certainty created under current law will take Vermont from one of the most favorable jurisdictions to do business in United States to one of the worst from a cloud service provider point of view. In a world where relocation can be accomplished at the click of a button, Vermont would be putting itself at a disadvantage over its neighboring states and incentivize new and relocating businesses to avoid consumption in Vermont in favor of states with more favorable (and more certain) tax laws. Continue Reading Vermont Bill Would Repeal Cloud Software Tax Exemption

The D.C. Council is once again preparing to consider legislation (B23-0035; the False Claims Amendment Act of 2019) that would authorize tax-based false claims actions, allowing private, profit-motivated parties to bring punitive civil enforcement lawsuits—a practice that is prohibited under current law consistent with the vast majority of other states with similar laws.

The Committee of the Whole is expected to consider the bill at its committee mark-up meeting on Tuesday, January 21, and we understand that it will closely resemble the bill that was introduced early last year, which in turn closely resembles prior iterations of the legislative proposal (e.g., the False Claims Amendment Act of 2013, the False Claims Amendment Act of 2016 and the False Claims Amendment Act of 2017).

Most taxpayers and their advisors understand just how problematic this proposal is. As we have seen in jurisdictions like New York and Illinois, opening the door (even a crack) to tax-related false claims can lead to significant headaches for taxpayers and usurp the authority of the state tax agency by involving the state Attorney General in tax enforcement decisions. One Chicago-based law firm has filed over a thousand qui tam actions under the Illinois statute. Few of these cases involve internal whistleblowers, actual fraud or reckless disregard of clear law. Instead, the cases usually involve inadvertent errors or good-faith interpretations of murky tax law. Many of the defendants accused of improperly administering provisions of Illinois’s sales and use tax law even proactively sought guidance from and were audited by the tax authority.

Summary of the Proposal

The bill would amend the existing false claims act in the District of Columbia (D.C. Code Ann. § 2-381.01 et seq.) to expressly authorize tax-related false claims actions against a person so long as they “reported net income, sales, or revenue totaling $1 million or more in a tax filing to which that claim, record, or statement pertained, and the damages pleaded in the action total $350,000 or more.” Because the current false claims statute includes a bright-line tax claim prohibition (consistent with a majority of jurisdictions with similar laws), this bill would represent a major policy departure in the District. See D.C. Code § 2-381.02(d) (stating that “[t]his section shall not apply to claims, records, or statements made pursuant to those portions of Title 47 that refer or relate to taxation”).

Unlike the typical three to six year statute of limitations for tax audits and enforcement, the statute of limitations for false claims to be alleged is 10 years after the date on which the violation occurs. See D.C. Code § 2-381.05(a). Additionally, treble damages would be authorized against taxpayers for violations, meaning District taxpayers would be liable for three times the amount of any damages sustained by the District (including tax, interest and penalties). See D.C. Code § 2-381.02(a). A private party who files a successful claim may receive between 15–25 percent of any recovery to the District if the District’s AG intervenes in the matter. However, if the private party successfully prosecutes the case on their own, in what are known as qui tam actions, they may receive between 25–30% of the amount recovered. This financial incentive encourages profit-motivated bounty hunters to develop and pursue theories of liability not established or approved by—or perhaps even at odds with—the agency responsible for tax administration.

Such a shift in policy would completely open the floodgates to the local plaintiffs’ bar (which, let’s be honest, is already very robust in DC and doesn’t need much enticing) and benefit them and high-priced defense attorneys at the expense of (among others): (1) the DC courts, which will be forced to entertain a litany of frivolous large-dollar tax allegations; (2) Office of the Attorney General (OAG), which will be forced to be involved in the sea of allegations—at least initially; (3) Office of Tax and Revenue (OTR), which will have its autonomy to interpret and administer the District’s tax laws trampled on by private parties and attorneys that do not specialize in tax; and (4) DC taxpayers, which will be forced to pay high-priced defense attorneys to defend against the claims or pay unmerited settlements to avoid the costs of litigation and potentially crippling press that can result from mislabeling a company interpreting a grey area of the law as a “tax cheat” or “fraudster.” Armed with all the leverage needed to squeeze a few dollars (or in many cases, millions of dollars due to the false claims damages and penalty calculation described below) out of unsuspecting District taxpayers, the proposal would create a toxic tax environment in DC that would be driven by legal fear of private plaintiffs—not compliance with OTR or DC law.

Case Studies: Illinois and New York

As all seasoned tax professionals know, not every state and local tax is clear and many require some degree of administrative interpretation by the revenue department. So what happens when an otherwise compliant taxpayer is told by a tax official to comply one way but then has to defend against a false claims action that asserts the taxpayer should have complied a different way? Unfortunately, this is exactly what has happened to many of our clients. In a system based on voluntary compliance, a level of trust and certainty should not be thrown out the door in favor of technical interpretations by those that have no place being responsible for administering the tax law. While providing a transparent environment where whistleblowers can come forward in good faith and report a tax violation (and not be punished for doing so) is an admirable policy to support, such a procedure already exists under DC law. See D.C. Code Ann. § 47-4111 (providing up to a 10% reward on any recovery to tax informants). If the Council believes this procedure is not adequate or is not properly being enforced by OTR, there are countless ways to legislatively reinvigorate existing law without a blanket removal of the tax bar in the false claims act.

In a hearing before the Illinois House Revenue and Finance Committee, former Illinois Revenue Director Brian Hamer described the Illinois cases as being brought by a financially motivated third party adept at manipulating the qui tam process to victimize businesses that at most made an inadvertent mistake. At that hearing, several witnesses described being forced into settlements for amounts far exceeding any tax owed because the costs of litigation are so high. While there is often a false assumption that most tax false claims actions are brought by “by-the-books” whistleblowers acting in the interest of the taxing jurisdiction, claims in the tax realm are primarily developed and driven by a cottage industry of plaintiffs’ law firms with profit-motivated incentives seeking to exploit an area of the law that leans in their favor. Mark Dyckman, the former General Counsel for the Illinois Department of Revenue, has said that “the cases have clearly interfered with the administration and enforcement of tax law and may have even ultimately cost the state money, though it’s impossible to quantify how much.”

Allowing private parties to intervene in the administration, interpretation or enforcement of the tax law commandeers the authority of the tax agency, creates uncertainty and can result in inequitable tax treatment. OTR testified against both the 2017 and 2019 bills, citing that FCA expansion would “infringe[] on the Chief Financial Officer’s exclusive authority for levying and collection of all taxes” and “could create parallel enforcement actions for tax cases.” The American Bar Association (ABA) has rejected a false claims approach for tax claims, acknowledging the unique tax risks faced by sellers. The Council on State Taxation (COST): “Because tax laws are complex and subject to differing interpretations, each state has established a revenue agency charged with administering the laws and applying them uniformly to taxpayers. The state or local tax agency, and not outside parties such as private litigants, should initiate examinations and enforce the tax laws the agency administers. While attorneys general enforce the states’ laws and may assist a state tax agency in litigation and/or appeals, they should not be involved in processes such as false claims act suits that usurp the state tax appeals system and negate taxpayers’ rights.”

The only winners in the proposal before the Council is the cottage industry of money hungry plaintiffs’ attorneys that will descend on the District and burden local government infrastructure and harass good-faith taxpayers in an effort to pad their own pockets. We are hopeful that the D.C. Council will fully consider the countless negative externalities that removing the false claims act tax bar will create.

 

On January 14, LB 989 was introduced in the Nebraska Legislature, which would impose sales and use tax on “the retail sale of digital advertisements.” The bill defines “digital advertisement” as “an advertising message delivered over the Internet that markets or promotes a particular good, service, or political candidate or message” (see pages 5-6 of the bill). The definition is a sweeping one, but the exact scope is unclear as the terms used are not further defined. It is also unclear how a taxable digital advertising transaction would be sourced if the proposed legislation is enacted.

The digital advertising tax proposed in the bill would have an effective date of October 1, 2020. Nebraska’s state sales tax rate is 5.5%, with local sales taxes up to an additional 2%.

Similar to Maryland’s SB 2 proposal, because Nebraska would tax digital advertising but not tax non-digital advertising, the proposed tax raises a series of legal concerns (above and beyond the obvious policy concerns).  For example, the tax would be a “discriminatory tax” prohibited by the Permanent Internet Tax Freedom Act (PITFA). The proposal also raises serious First Amendment (singling out digital commercial speech for tax) and Equal Protection (lack of rational basis for tax only on digital advertising) issues.

Practice Note: If enacted, LB 989 would create an uncharted and sweeping tax on digital platforms and advertisers. While this bill will have an uphill battle in 2020 (for example, Nebraska has a short, 60-day legislative session this year and Nebraska has a filibuster rule) the repeated introduction of digital advertising tax bills early in 2020 state legislative sessions may be the start of an alarming trend of legally suspect tax proposals that we are keeping a close eye on.  Businesses impacted by the Maryland and Nebraska digital advertising tax proposals are encouraged to contact the authors to discuss these legislative developments further.

On January 8, SB 2 was introduced to establish a new digital advertising gross revenue tax of up to 10% on “annual gross revenues of a person derived from digital advertising services in the state.” This uncharted new tax would make Maryland the first state or locality in the United States to impose a targeted tax on the gross revenue of digital advertising services.

The bill defines “in the state” as appearing on the user’s device located in the state (determined based on either the user’s IP address or reasonable knowledge). “Digital advertising services” is defined as “advertisement services on a digital interface, including advertisements in the form of banner advertising, search engine advertising, interstitial advertising, and other comparable advertising services.” The definition uses the word “includes” rather than “means,” enabling the definition to be read even more broadly. “Digital interface” is defined as “any type of software, including a website, part of a website, or application, that a user is able to access.”

The tax applies at a sliding scale:

  • 2.5% for person with global annual gross revenues of $100 million or more
  • 5% for person with global annual gross revenues of $1 billion or more
  • 7.5% for person with global annual gross revenues of $5 billion or more
  • 10% for person with global annual gross revenues of $15 billion or more

The bill would require quarterly estimated tax payments and an annual return and provides that willful failure to file a digital advertising gross revenues tax return is a misdemeanor subject to a $5,000 fine and 5 years’ imprisonment.

The bill is co-sponsored by Senator Thomas Miller (D), the outgoing Senate President, and Senator William Ferguson (D), the incoming Senate President. Maryland legislative leaders have been hinting at new taxes on the digital economy, digital downloads, and streaming subscriptions as they decide how to fund a proposed $825 million per year education spending increase. Governor Hogan (R) opposes the education spending increase as too expensive, amounting to a $6,000 per family tax increase, and in response Democrats last week ruled out raising income, sales, or property tax rates. We therefore may see additional digital taxation bills aside from this one.

Because Maryland would tax digital advertising but not tax non-digital advertising, the tax is a “discriminatory tax” prohibited by the Permanent Internet Tax Freedom Act (PITFA). The use of an arbitrary threshold of global annual gross revenues, while perhaps politically popular, serves to tax larger global advertising service providers at a higher tax rate than their domestic counterparts, in violation of the Commerce Clause of the US Constitution.

The proposal also raises serious First Amendment (singling out digital commercial speech for a punitive tax) and Equal Protection (lack of rational basis for punitive tax on digital advertising) issues. For example, the Maryland Court of Appeals has held that municipal taxes on advertising media were unconstitutional for singling out for taxation newspapers and radio and television stations entitled to first amendment immunities.  See City of Baltimore v. A.S. Abell Co., 218 Md. 273, 145 A.2d 111 (1958). The same constitutional concerns that the court found in that case apply here—just in the context of digital advertising.

As previously announced, the Illinois Department of Revenue has begun a new amnesty program, running October 1 through November 15, 2019. All taxes paid to the Illinois Department of Revenue for taxable periods ending after June 30, 2011, and prior to July 1, 2018, are eligible for amnesty with relief from penalties and interest. Unlike prior Illinois programs, taxpayers who do not participate in amnesty will not be subject to double interest or penalty charges on subsequent audit assessments for taxes that were eligible for amnesty. A link to the Illinois Department of Revenue forms for its amnesty program is attached here.

The Illinois Secretary of State also offers an amnesty program running from October 1 through November 15, 2019, for corporate franchise taxes related to periods ending after March 15, 2008, and on or before June 30, 2019. In light of the phase-out of the corporate franchise tax by January 1, 2024 (enacted by Public Act 101-9), participants in the amnesty program should proceed with extreme caution. For more information, the Secretary of State has published a Fact Sheet and form of Petition on its website: https://www.cyberdriveillinois.com/departments/business_services/home.html.

“Generally, the only places with gross receipts taxes today are U.S. states and developing countries.” –Professor Richard Pomp, University of Connecticut

As the economy shifts to a digital one, we are finding that states are turning toward unconventional revenue options. One trend we’re seeing is the surprising comeback of the gross receipts tax (GRT):

  • Oregon’s new Commercial Activity Tax (CAT) takes effect January 1, 2020. Oregon officials are currently writing rules to implement it. Portland, Oregon also adopted a 1% gross receipts tax, imposed only on big businesses, starting January 1, 2019.
  • San Francisco voters imposed an additional gross receipts tax on businesses with receipts of more than $50 million beginning January 1, 2019. This is on top of the gross receipts tax that was phased in from 2014 to 2018 to replace the city’s payroll tax.
  • Nevada’s Commerce Tax took effect July 1, 2015, imposing differing tax rates on 26 categories of business with over $4 million in receipts. Part of the revenue was to reduce the state’s MBT payroll tax, but legislators suspended those reductions this year; it’s now in court.
  • Serious proposals to adopt a statewide gross receipts tax keep coming, with the last three years including Louisiana, Missouri, Oklahoma, West Virginia and Wyoming. A San Jose, California gross receipts tax proposal was approved to gather petition signatures in 2016 but eventually morphed into a business license tax overhaul.

Continue Reading Gross Receipts Taxes Face Policy and Legal Challenges

Legislators in Sacramento are mulling over one of the most (if not the most) troubling state and local tax bills of the past decade. AB 1270, introduced earlier this year and passed by the Assembly in late May, would amend the California False Claims Act (CFCA) to remove the “tax bar,” a prohibition that exists in the federal False Claims Act and the vast majority of states with similar laws.

If enacted, this bill will open the door for a cottage industry of financially driven plaintiffs’ lawyers to act as bounty hunters in the state and local tax arena. California taxpayers would be forced to defend themselves in high-stakes civil investigations and/or litigation—even when the Attorney General’s Office (AG) declines to intervene. As seen in other states, this racket leads to abusive practices and undermines the goal of voluntary compliance in tax administration. Continue Reading Vultures Circling as Bill to Expand California FCA to Tax Looms in Legislature