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More States Respond to Federal Tax Reform

It’s been nearly three months since the federal tax reform bill (commonly referred to as the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, or “TCJA”) was enacted and states continue to respond to the various provisions of the TCJA. Recently, there have been notable legislative efforts in New York, Idaho, Iowa and Minnesota.

New York

Starting with the release of the Governor’s Budget Bill in January 2018, the 30-day amendments to that Bill on February 15, and the amendments to the Assembly Bill and Senate Bill this month, there has been much action this legislative session concerning the potential response to federal tax reform. The proposed response in the two latest bills—the Assembly Bill (AB 9509) and the Senate Bill (SB 7509)—is discussed below. (more…)




Unclaimed Property Hunger Games: States Seek Supreme Court Review in ‘Official Check’ Dispute

Background

As detailed in our blog last month, MoneyGram Payment Systems, Inc. (MoneyGram) is stuck in between a rock and a hard place as states continue to duel with Delaware over the proper classification of (and priority rules applicable to) MoneyGram’s escheat liability for uncashed “official checks.”  The dispute hinges on whether the official checks are properly classified as third-party bank checks (as Delaware directed MoneyGram to remit them as) or are more similar to “money orders” (as alleged by Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and numerous other states participating in a recent audit of the official checks by third-party auditor TSG). If classified as third-party bank checks, the official checks would be subject to the federal common law priority rules set forth in Texas v. New Jersey, 379 U.S. 674 (1965) and escheat to MoneyGram’s state of incorporation (Delaware) since the company’s books and records do not indicate the apparent owner’s last known address under the first priority rule. However, if the official checks are classified as more akin to money orders under the federal Disposition of Abandoned Money Orders and Traveler’s Checks Act of 1974 (Act), as determined by TSG and demanded by Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and the other states, they would be subject to the special statutory priority rules enacted by Congress in response the Supreme Court of the United States’ Pennsylvania v. New York decision and escheat to the state where they were purchased. See 12 U.S.C. § 2503(1) (providing that where any sum is payable on a money order on which a business association is directly liable, the state in which the money order was purchased shall be entitled exclusively to escheat or take custody of the sum payable on such instrument).

In addition to the suit filed by the Pennsylvania Treasury Department seeking more than $10 million from Delaware covered in our prior blog, the Wisconsin Department of Revenue recently filed a similar complaint in federal district court in Wisconsin, alleging Delaware owes the state in excess of $13 million. Other states participating in the TSG audit (such as Arkansas, Colorado and Texas) also recently made demands to MoneyGram and Delaware.

It is interesting to note that in 2015, Minnesota (MoneyGram’s former state of incorporation) turned over in excess of $200,000 to Pennsylvania upon its demand for amounts previously remitted to Minnesota for MoneyGram official checks. Apparently not only do the states in which the transaction occurred disagree with but even a former state of incorporation took the majority path.   (more…)




Arizona ALJ: Remote Provider of Subscription Research Service is the Lessor of Tangible Personal Property

In a curious decision out of Arizona, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) found an out-of-state provider of online research services was properly assessed transaction privilege tax (TPT, Arizona’s substitute for a sales tax) based on the logic that the provider was renting tangible personal property to in-state customers.  The Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH) decision, No. 14C-201400197S-REV, available here, should be unsettling for all remote providers of subscription-based services with customers in Arizona.  This decision offers an example of the continued push by states to administratively expand the tax base to include nontaxable digital services.  Many states, like Arizona, do so by considering remote access to digital goods and services to be tangible personal property, as defined by statutes that are decades old.

Facts

The taxpayer was an out-of-state IT research firm offering internally-produced proprietary research and data compilation content remotely.  The taxpayer’s headquarters, offices, servers and platform were all located outside Arizona.  Customers accessed the research material via usernames and passwords received as part of a subscription.  The Arizona Department of Revenue (the Department) determined that the subscription income was subject to the TPT because it was income from the leasing of tangible personal property.  The taxpayer filed a protest with the Department, arguing that the online research services provided make it a service provider—not a lessor of tangible personal property.  The taxpayer noted “at most, [they are] providing clients with a simultaneous license to use.”

Department’s Argument

The Department argued that the taxpayer was leasing tangible personal property (research and data content) through the subscriptions they provide to customers.  Because they had exclusive access and use to the digital content (via username and password), the customers were able to perceive tangible personal property through their sense of sight. Therefore, the taxpayer’s receipts from subscriptions to its research and data content are taxable rental activities subject to the personal property rental classification.

Holding

The ALJ held the taxpayer did not meet its burden of proof of showing the Department misapplied the tax laws.  The decision dismissed all of the taxpayer’s arguments that it is not engaged in leasing tangible personal property.  At the outset, the ALJ found that the inability to control or modify the digital content was not enough to consider the customers to be lacking “exclusive control.”  This is important because the Arizona Supreme Court has made it clear that the scope and application of the personal property rental classification (and its predecessor) hinges on the degree of control over the property in question that is ceded to its putative “lessee” or “renter.” In sum, because the access and use of the proprietary research and data content was offered for a periodic subscription (consideration), such activity is the leasing of tangible personal property, and the assessment by the Department was appropriate.

Analysis

As a threshold matter, it is unclear whether the Department has authority to consider remote access to digital content to be tangible property merely because the content may be viewed on [...]

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State Revenue Departments Misapplying Federal Tax Law

State income tax laws generally build on federal tax law.  The typical pattern is to begin the calculation of state taxable income with federal taxable income and then to modify it by adding or subtracting items where state tax policies differ from federal tax policies.  As a result, a corporation’s state taxable income can be affected by the application of the federal Internal Revenue Code.  State revenue departments generally do not consider themselves bound by Internal Revenue Service determinations respecting the application of federal tax law and believe that they are free to interpret the Internal Revenue Code as they see fit.  Unfortunately, this has led to problems because state tax auditors often are not well trained in federal tax principles.  We had an instance earlier this year in which an auditor claimed that the merger of a wholly-owned subsidiary into its corporate parent was taxable because there was an increase in the parent’s retained earnings.  The merger was a plain vanilla tax-free liquidation under Sections 332 and 337 of the Internal Revenue Code (there was no intercompany debt and the subsidiary was clearly solvent), but sending copies of these provisions to the auditor left him unmoved.  We finally got him to back down by showing that the parent’s increase in retained earnings was matched by a decrease in the subsidiary’s retained earnings so that there was no overall increase.  As we explained to the client, a win is a win, even if for the wrong reasons.  Nevertheless, if the auditor had been properly versed in the most basic federal corporate tax principles, this exercise would not have been necessary.

Two recent decisions illustrate misapplications of federal tax law by state revenue departments.

The Idaho Tax Commission recently held that a subsidiary’s net operating loss (NOL) carryovers did not pass to its parent in a merger of the subsidiary into the parent.  The parent did not continue to operate the business of the merged subsidiary and the Commission held that “based on IRC §382, the Petitioner cannot carry the loss forward after the merger.”  Idaho State Tax Commission Ruling No. 25749 (Apr. 17, 2014).  The Commission’s statement of federal tax law is incorrect.  Section 382 of the Internal Revenue Code does not apply to a merger of a wholly-owned subsidiary into its parent.  Because of constructive ownership rules, no change in ownership is deemed to occur.  Moreover, Section 382 does not prevent an NOL from passing to the surviving company in a merger; it simply limits the extent to which the NOL can be used.  Although it is true that the limitation is zero for years in which the merged company’s business is discontinued, the NOL is not destroyed.  If the parent later sells assets received from the subsidiary that had built-in gain at the time of the merger, the loss can be used to offset the gain.

Discussions that we have had with the Commission after the decision came out indicate that the Commission had [...]

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Idaho Drafting Cloud Computing Regulation in the Wake of H.B. 598

The Idaho Sales Tax Rules Committee is currently revising Rule 027, Computer Equipment, Software, and Data Services, in response to the passage of H.B. 598.  The Committee met for the last time on July 24 to discuss the draft rule prior to the promulgation of the proposed rule.

As previously discussed in Inside SALT, the passage of Idaho H.B. 598 has resulted in the exclusion from the definition of tangible personal property of “computer software that is delivered electronically; remotely accessed software; and computer software that is delivered by the load and leave method where the vendor or its agent loads the software at the user’s location but does not transfer any tangible personal property containing the software to the user.”  However, “computer software that constitutes digital music, digital books, digital videos and digital games” is included within the definition of tangible personal property.

The discussion draft of Rule 027, released prior to the meeting, added new definitions for ‘canned software,’ ‘computer program,’ ‘computer software,’ ‘custom software,’ ‘digital product,’ ‘information stored in an electronic medium,’ ‘load and leave method’ and ‘remotely accessed computer software.’  As of the July 24 meeting, the definition of ‘delivered electronically’ was still under discussion.

The draft rule interprets H.B. 598 to assist taxpayers in identifying transactions subject to Idaho sales tax.  Following are items addressed by the draft rule:

  • The draft identifies streaming digital music, books and videos as subject to Idaho sales tax.
  • The draft explains that if canned software is loaded onto a user’s computer but has minimal or no functionality without connecting to the provider’s servers, it may be taxable based upon the delivery method of the canned software.
  • Online or remote data storage on storage media owned and controlled by another party is a nontaxable service.
  • Where the seller purchases raw data, expends time and resources to “clean up” the raw data into a usable format and charges customers for the right to use the data for a specified period of time, and the customers only have access to the full data over the internet, the charges are not taxable.
  • Digital games are treated by the draft rule as tangible personal property, and thus taxable, regardless of the method of access or delivery and regardless of whether the digital game requires the internet for some or all of its functionality.
  • Periodic charges to play games that require a constant connection over the internet to a remote server and periodic charges for a gaming service that enables certain functionality are taxable.
  • While the rule imposes sales tax on the purchase of virtual currency that enables additional content or progress in a digital game, it will not address the purchase of virtual currency used to purchase digital products such as video games, digital videos or apps.
  • The draft rule addresses the taxability of maintenance contracts.  The original rule is revised to impose tax on mandatory maintenance contracts only if the software to which the contract applies is subject to tax.  [...]

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Revise Your Tax Matrix: Remote Access of Software Exempt in Michigan and Idaho

A trend is developing in response to aggressive Department of Revenue/Treasury policymaking regarding cloud computing.  The courts and legislatures are addressing the issue and concluding that the remote access to software should not be taxed.  Here are two recent developments that illustrate the trend:

Michigan – Auto-Owners Insurance Company v. Department of Treasury

On March 20, 2014, the Michigan Court of Claims held in Auto-Owners Insurance Company v. Department of Treasury that certain cloud transactions were not subject to use tax because the transactions were nontaxable services.  The State has appealed this decision.

Auto-Owners engaged in transactions with numerous vendors to provide services and products that Auto-Owners used to conduct its business.  The court grouped Auto-Owners’ transactions into transactions with six categories of providers: (1) Insurance industry providers; (2) Marketing and advertising providers; (3) Technology and communications providers; (4) Information providers; (5) Payment remittance and processing support providers; and (6) Technology providers.  The transactions all involved, on some level, Auto-Owners accessing software through the Internet.  No software was downloaded by Auto-Owners.

The Michigan use tax is imposed on the privilege of using tangible personal property in the state.  Tangible personal property includes prewritten, non-custom, software that is “delivered by any means.”  Mich. Comp. Laws § 205.92b(o).  The court held that the transactions were not subject to use tax under the plain language of Michigan’s statute.

First, the court held that use tax did not apply because the court interpreted the “delivered by any means” language from Michigan’s statute to apply to the electronic and physical delivery of software, not the remote access of a third-party provider’s technology infrastructure.  Second, the court held that the software was not “used” by Auto-Owners.  Auto-Owners did not have control over the software as it only had the “ability to control outcomes by inputting certain data to be analyzed.”  Third, the court held that even if prewritten computer software was delivered and used, the use was “merely incidental to the services rendered by the third-party providers and would not subject the overall transactions to use tax.”  Michigan case law provides that if a transaction includes the transfer of tangible personal property and non-taxable services, the transaction is not taxable if the transfer of property is incidental to the services.

Practice Note:  This decision is encouraging in that the court said that the Department was ignoring the plain meaning of the statute and overreaching, and determined that the legislature must provide specific language extending the sales and use tax for such transactions to be taxable.  It is important to note that the Michigan statute uses the phrase “delivered by any means,” and the court focused on the definition of deliver in reaching its decision.  This decision will likely have implications for other streamlined sales tax (SST) member states.  Auto-Owners Ins. Co. v. Dep’t of Treas., No. 12-000082-MT (Mich. Ct. Cl. Mar. 20, 2014).

Idaho – H.B. 598

On April 4, 2014, Governor Butch Otter signed into law Idaho [...]

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