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The US Department of the Treasury Says State IRC Conformity Bills Do Not Trigger Federal Relief Claw-Back Provision

As we’ve blogged about in the past, the recently enacted American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA) includes an ambiguous claw-back provision. If broadly interpreted, it could result in states losing relief funding provided under the APRA if there is any state legislative or administrative change that results in the reduction of state revenue. This provision is causing havoc in the state tax world, rightfully so.

After much yelling and screaming from state attorneys general and those in the tax world, including McDermott (see McDermott letter to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen attached), the US Department of the Treasury issued a press release announcing forthcoming “comprehensive guidance” on this provision. Treasury also addressed a question that has been on the top of our minds since the provision was enacted: Could state legislation addressing state conformity to the Internal Revenue Code trigger the claw-back? States routinely conform to and decouple from changes to the Internal Revenue Code, so if such actions could trigger the claw-back, state legislatures would be reluctant to consider them. We were so concerned about this issue that we specifically addressed it in our letter to Secretary Yellen.

This week, we received the Treasury’s guidance on this issue: Conformity bills will not trigger the claw-back. In its press release, Treasury stated:

… Treasury has decided to address a question that has arisen frequently: whether income tax changes that simply conform a State or territory’s tax law with recent changes in federal income tax law are subject to the offset provision of section 602(c)(2)(A) of the Social Security Act, as added by the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. Regardless of the particular method of conformity and the effect on net tax revenue, Treasury views such changes as permissible under the offset provision.

This is a step in the right direction and should ease concerns of state legislatures. Passing a conformity bill will not cause any loss of federal funding. Treasury’s guidance, because it applies to all “methods of conformity,” should cover any legislation that either couples with or decouples from the Internal Revenue Code.

But our work is not done. In our letter to Secretary Yellen we also asked for guidance confirming that state actions in other areas will not trigger the claw-back. Specifically, we made concrete suggestions that actions to correcting tax statutes or rules that are either unconstitutional or barred by or violate federal law also should not trigger the claw-back. Treasury’s recent press release gives us a glimmer of hope that Treasury will exclude such actions from the clutches of the claw-back provision as well. Stay tuned for more!




McDermott Provides Treasury Department with Concrete Suggestions for Guidance on the American Rescue Plan Act’s Claw-Back Provision

The recently enacted American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA) includes an ambiguous claw-back provision that has brought the world of state and local tax policymaking to a grinding halt. Because ARPA’s adoption occurred during the final weeks of many states’ legislative sessions, rapid issuance of guidance from the US Department of the Treasury is needed before the sessions adjourn to prevent the irreversible damage that will occur if a state foregoes enacting policies aimed at alleviating the economic disruption caused by COVID-19 out of fear of facing claw-back of federal relief.

McDermott recently sent a letter to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, urging the issuance of guidance giving a balanced interpretation of the claw-back provision. This guidance is necessary to avoid putting state legislatures, governors and tax administrators across the country in an untenable situation where every tax change or adjustment being considered—no matter how innocuous or routine—will carry the risk of a reduction to their state’s share of federal funding for the next three years.

In the letter, we provided concrete suggestions on areas where the ARPA left room for such balanced interpretation. We suggested that Treasury interpret the claw-back provision as either inapplicable to or provide a safe harbor for:

  • Changes addressing state conformity to the Internal Revenue Code (IRC)
  • Corrections of unconstitutional tax statutes or rules
  • Corrections of tax provisions barred by or that violate federal law
  • Actions in which there is no or only a weak connection between the law change reducing net revenue and the use of federal relief funds
  • Changes in the law announced before the enactment of ARPA
  • Reductions in net revenue related to purposes that further ARPA’s objectives.

The letter pointed out that states need concrete guidance, whether formal or informal, addressing these areas. Such guidance will alleviate the concerns of state governments and allow state policymakers to function and continue the orderly administration of state taxes.




Federal COVID-19 Relief Bill Brings State Tax Policy to a Grinding Halt

On March 11, 2021, US President Joe Biden signed the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA), the COVID-19 relief bill that includes $350 billion in relief to states and localities. To prevent states from using federal relief funds to finance tax cuts, Congress included a clawback provision requiring that any relief funds used to offset tax cuts during the next three years be returned to the federal government. Here is the text of the provision:

  • A State or territory shall not use the funds provided under this section or transferred pursuant to section 603(c)(4) to either directly or indirectly offset a reduction in the net tax revenue of such State or territory resulting from a change in law, regulation or administrative interpretation during the covered period that reduces any tax (by providing for a reduction in a rate, a rebate, a deduction, a credit or otherwise) or delays the imposition of any tax or tax increase.

This language broadly prohibits states from taking legislative or administrative action through the end of 2024 that reduces state tax revenues by any means (deduction, credit, delay, rate change, etc.) if doing so could be characterized as the use of federal relief funds to offset, directly or indirectly, the tax reduction. Practically speaking, this limitation will completely hamstring state and local governments from the normal ebb and flow of tax policy changes, adjustments and interpretations. Taken to its logical conclusion, this language freezes state legislative and administrative tax policy development out of fear anything they may do would require the return of federal relief funds. We expect the US Department of the Treasury will issue guidance clarifying this provision in the coming weeks.

Practice Note: This provision of ARPA is, in our view, the most significant federal pre-emption of state tax policy in history. For the next three years, legislators and tax administrators alike will be scrutinized as their tax policy decisions are evaluated through the lens of this prohibition. This level of congressional control over state tax policy decisions and fiscal autonomy likely violates the Tenth Amendment of the US Constitution and would dismay the framers’ basic notions of federalism.

While Congress has the ability to limit the use of federal funds in ensuring its policy goals are accomplished, the overly broad state tax limitation adopted by Congress goes far beyond its stated purpose and prevents states from furthering ARPA’s goals by using tax policy to craft their own COVID-19 relief measures. Any regulation or administrative interpretation that reduces state tax revenue or delays the implementation of a tax is, effectively, barred by the unprecedented intrusion into state tax policy-making.

The effects of ARPA’s state tax limitation are immediate and far-reaching. It will chill continuing state efforts to couple/decouple state tax codes to or from the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017. Additionally, ARPA already stalled legislation pending in Maryland that would delay, for one year, implementation of its digital advertising services gross receipts tax, restoring return filing and tax [...]

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False Claims Act Risk for Unclaimed Property Holders

In what has become an unfortunate trend, unclaimed property holders continue to be subject to lawsuits under state false claims acts (FCA – also called a qui tam or whistleblower action) for alleged underreporting and remittance of unclaimed property obligations. More than 30 states have a false claims act with whistleblower provisions and nearly all are applicable to unclaimed property. While an honest mistake should not create liability under an FCA, a holder could be liable if its failure to report not only was done knowingly, but also if such failure to comply was done with deliberate ignorance or with reckless disregard. Actual fraud is not a necessary precursor to being subject to false claims act liability.

Potential liability under state FCA laws is far in excess of any liability under an unclaimed property audit. FCA laws impose treble damages (3x the value of the underreported property), penalties, interest and attorney’s fees. Successful claims under these laws are not just extremely punitive to the holder but also lucrative for the person bringing the lawsuit who can earn up to 30% of the ultimate recovery to the state. Liability under a FCA can turn a holder’s failure to be appropriately diligent in determining its unclaimed property compliance obligations into a multi-million dollar legal battle with long-term public relations implications. The fact that a holder has already been audited or that the State may have historically agreed with the holder’s position may not prevent a FCA case progressing.

A holder’s FCA unclaimed property horror begins with an investigation, which can be prompted by either claims by private parties (called relators) or the state attorney general’s office. A relator may be a disgruntled employee or any clever person with good research skills. The holder may not even know the claim has been filed and the investigation has been going on for years. These investigations may open closed periods and, once the holder is informed, are very interrogation-like, with the holder often knowing very little about the underlying claims until the case is unsealed. Eventually, these investigations may turn into a public court battle with a sometimes politically motivated state attorney general on the other side. Even if the state AG’s office declines to proceed with the case, the private party initiating the case may nevertheless proceed.

While frequently FCA cases are settled before becoming public, several recent cases provide some background for holders looking for FCA examples. In a series of Delaware qui tam cases, more than 25 retailers and restaurants were sued by a former disgruntled employee of a gift card issuance and management company alleging unclaimed property compliance violations. All but one settled or was dismissed by the court. In New York, a court recently dismissed claims by an audit firm against nearly a dozen life insurers in response to allegations under the false claims act that the companies failed to report life insurance policy funds – alleging more than $14.5 billion in damages. Regardless of industry, these lawsuits are a [...]

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Connecticut Bill Aims to Address the Impact of Telecommuting during the Pandemic

As we continue to face growing concerns because of the nationwide impact of COVID-19, taxpayers should be mindful of the potential impacts that the continued rise in telecommuting may have on their state personal income tax liabilities.

A bill was recently introduced in Connecticut that partially addresses this situation. Connecticut House Bill No. 6513 (HB 6513) clarifies that Connecticut residents will not face double taxation on their 2020 taxes and will instead receive a credit against their Connecticut personal income taxes for taxes paid in other states even if the resident, because of COVID-19, was working remotely from Connecticut rather than from their usual out-of-state office. HB 6513 further states that the Connecticut Department of Revenue Services, in determining whether an employer has nexus with Connecticut for purposes of the imposition of any Connecticut tax, shall not consider the activities of an employee who worked remotely from Connecticut solely because of COVID-19.

HB 6513 passed in the 151-member Connecticut House of Representatives on February 24, 2021, and passed in the 36-member Connecticut State Senate on March 1, 2021. The bill now heads to the state governor’s desk for signature. While it is expected that the Governor will sign the bill, passage of the bill still leaves taxpayers with uncertainty for 2021. Many taxpayers nationwide are likely to continue working remotely (from states other than where their usual offices are located) for the foreseeable future, and absent Congressional legislation or a Supreme Court decision, this state income tax issue does not seem likely to abate any time soon.




Maryland Digital Advertising Services Tax—Implementation Delay Likely

On the morning of Friday, February 26, 2021, the Maryland Senate Budget and Taxation Committee added a new item to its agenda for the hearing later that morning. The new item was proposed amendments to Senate Bill 787, a bill that would amend the Maryland Digital Advertising Tax by excluding broadcasters and news media and preventing service providers from directly passing the tax through to customers. One of the amendments would change the tax years to which the tax applies from tax years beginning after December 31, 2020, to tax years beginning after December 31, 2021. The amendment passed on a voice vote.

The amendment was sponsored by the bill’s author, Senate President Bill Ferguson. Senator Ferguson was also the chief proponent of the Digital Advertising Services Tax. A companion bill, House Bill 1200, sponsored by House Majority Leader Eric Luedtke, came up for a hearing in the House Ways and Means Committee later that day, but only testimony from supporters of the two carve-outs was received. No amendments were offered, and no votes were taken.

Because the amendment delaying the implementation of the Digital Advertising Services Tax is coming from the Senate’s president, we believe its passage a near certainty. This amendment, if passed, would not delay the effective date of the tax, it would only change the tax year to which it first applies from 2021 to 2022.




Wisconsin Court of Appeals Rules That Department Cannot Deny John Deere DRD Because of the Department’s Prior Guidance on Foreign Distributions

The Wisconsin Court of Appeals, District IV, issued its decision in Wisconsin Department of Revenue v. Deere & Company, regarding the treatment of distributions from foreign partnerships that are treated as corporations for federal tax purposes. There were two questions presented in the case. The first issue was whether distributions received by John Deere qualified as “dividends received from [the foreign partnership] with respect to its common stock” under Wis. Stat. § 71.26(3)(j). The state argued that this distribution was not made with respect to common stock because the entity was a foreign partnership. Unlike the Tax Appeals Commission, the Court of Appeals did not address this issue.

The second issue was whether previous Wisconsin Department of Revenue guidance, in effect during the period at issue, which stated that if a non-corporate entity is classified as a corporation, a non-corporate interest is treated in the same matter as stock, was binding on the Department under Wis. Stat. § 73.16(2)(a). The court held for the taxpayer, finding that the guidance applied and was binding on the Department. The Department has since modified that guidance, thus limiting the applicability of the decision to earlier tax years. This decision leaves open the issue, which will matter to taxpayers for later years, of whether similar distribution events will be eligible for dividends received deduction treatment.

The case is Wisconsin Department of Revenue v. Deere & Company, Appeal No. 2020AP726, in the Wisconsin Court of Appeals, District IV (Feb. 25, 2021).




Maryland Sued over Digital Advertising “Tax”

Today, McDermott Will & Emery filed suit in Maryland federal court on behalf of a number of leading trade associations against Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot, challenging the state’s recently enacted 10% gross receipts “tax” applicable to digital advertising revenue. The plaintiffs in the suit are the US Chamber of Commerce, the Internet Association, NetChoice and the Computer and Communications Industry Association. The suit asks that the court invalidate Maryland’s punitive imposition as violating several provisions of the US Constitution and the Internet Tax Freedom Act.

A file-stamped copy of the complaint is available below:



The complaint alleges that Maryland’s focus on internet advertising services (the tax does not apply to traditional advertising) discriminates against the internet, violating the Internet Tax Freedom Act. Next, because Maryland’s new law burdens and penalizes conduct occurring outside Maryland, it violates the Commerce and Due Process Clauses of the US Constitution. The complaint alleges that the characteristics of the imposition and the circumstances surrounding its enactment demonstrate a clear purpose and intent to punish out-of-state digital advertising companies for their extraterritorial activities.

The case is Civil No. 21-cv-410 (D. Md., filed February 18, 2021). Michael B. Kimberly, Paul W. Hughes, Stephen P. Kranz and Sarah P. Hogarth of McDermott, Will & Emery’s Washington, DC, office represent the plaintiffs.

Practice Note: The filing of this suit sends a signal to other states, like New York, Connecticut and Montana, where similar proposals are under consideration. Policymakers in those other states should recognize that following Maryland’s lead will only lead to the courthouse.




Maryland Enacts First Digital Advertising Services Gross Receipts Tax: Now What?

General Assembly Veto Override

On February 12, 2021, the Maryland General Assembly overrode Governor Larry Hogan’s veto of HB 732 (2020) (the Act), a bill enacting a first-of-its-kind digital advertising services tax on the annual gross receipts from the provision of digital advertising services in Maryland. The tax only applies to companies having annual gross revenues (without deduction of any expenses) from all sources of $100 million or more. The rate of the tax varies, depending on the level of global annual gross revenues, from 2.5% (for companies with $1 billion or less in global annual gross revenues) to 10% (for companies with more than $15 billion in global annual gross revenue). The rate applies to gross revenues from the performance of digital advertising services in Maryland. For instance, a company subject to the 10% rate having $100 million of revenue attributable to the performance of digital advertising services in Maryland would owe an annual tax of $10 million that will be reported and paid on a quarterly basis throughout the year.



Effective Date

Even though the legislation says the tax is effective July 1, 2020, under the Maryland Constitution, vetoed legislation becomes effective the later of the effective date in the bill or 30 days after the veto is overridden. Based on today’s veto override, the bill should become effective on or about March 14, 2021. However, because the legislation is “applicable to all taxable years beginning after December 31, 2020,” the digital advertising services tax will be retroactive to the beginning of this year.

Looming Compliance Deadlines

The digital advertising services tax applies on an annual basis with a return due on or before April 15 of the following year. However, the tax also requires quarterly filing and payment for certain taxpayers. On or before April 15 of the current year, persons subject to the tax are required to file a declaration of estimated tax showing how much Maryland digital advertising services tax they expect they will owe for the calendar year. As part of the declaration and quarterly with returns filed thereafter, the Act requires that they pay at least 25% of the estimated annual tax shown on the declaration. There is a penalty of up to 25% of the amount of any underestimate of the tax. The Act also creates a fine of up to $5,000 and criminal penalties of up to five years’ imprisonment for willfully failing to file the annual return.

Filing and Guidance TBD

At the time of writing, the Maryland Office of the Comptroller has not published any of the forms necessary for making the declaration of estimated tax or the return due on April 15 of the current year. The comptroller’s office also has not adopted regulations as required by the Act, providing guidance on when advertising revenue is derived in Maryland, likely a daunting and complicated task since this is a novel question that other states have not addressed. Many aspects of the Act are vague at best [...]

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DC Council Expands False Claims Act to Tax Claims

The DC Council has passed an amended bill (the False Claims Amendment Act of 2020, B23-0035) that beginning as early as January 2021 will allow tax-related false claims to be raised against large taxpayers for up to 10 years of prior tax periods! This troubling legislation creates a real and imminent possibility of prior tax periods that are closed for assessment under the DC tax law pursuant to DC Code § 47-4301 being reopened by the DC attorney general and/or a private qui tam plaintiff.

While the introduced bill passed a first reading of the Committee of the Whole on Tuesday, November 17, 2020, by a vote of 8-5, the second reading (as amended) passed by a vote of 12-1 (a veto-proof supermajority) on December 1, 2020. The amended bill (as approved by the DC Council) will be sent to Mayor Muriel Bowser for consideration. If the mayor does not veto the bill or if her veto is overridden, the legislation will be assigned an Act number and sent to Congress for a 30-day review period before becoming effective as law. While extremely rare, Congress has an opportunity to reject the DC Council’s Act by passing a joint resolution, which must be signed by the president of the United States to prevent the Act from becoming law. Assuming this doesn’t happen, the Act will become law after the expiration of the 30-day Congressional review period. Assuming the Mayor quickly approves the legislation and Congress does not seek a joint resolution disapproving the Act, the legislation passed by the DC Council could take effect as early as next month!

As amended, the False Claims Amendment Act of 2020 passed by the DC Council will:

  • Remove the taxation bar that exists as part of current law (see DC Code § 2-381.02(d)) and replace it with explicit authorization allowing by the DC attorney general and private qui tam plaintiffs to pursue taxpayers for claims, records or statements made pursuant to Title 47 that refer or relate to taxation when “the District taxable income, District sales or District revenue of the person against who the action is being brought equals or exceeds $1 million for any taxable year subject to any action brought pursuant to this subsection, and the damages pleaded in the action total $350,000 or more.”
  • Require that the DC attorney general “consult with the District’s chief financial officer about the complaint” when tax-related claims are filed by a qui tam
  • Prohibits a claim by a qui tam plaintiff “based on allegations or transactions relating to taxation and that are the subject of an existing investigation, audit, examination, ruling, agreement or administrative or enforcement activity by the District’s chief financial officer.”
  • Not require the District’s chief financial officer “to produce tax information, or other information from which tax information can be inferred, if the production thereof would be a violation of federal law.”
  • Increase the maximum statutory reward for informants under the Taxation [...]

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