From coast to coast, both state and local tax authorities are rapidly responding to the Coronavirus (COVID-19). And while many of the relief efforts are appropriately aimed at supporting individuals who have been impacted by COVID-19, recent pronouncements from local leaders demonstrate that cities are also eager to implement measures supporting small businesses within their communities.
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 Specifically, even if the cloud tax exemption is repealed, substantial uncertainty remains under Vermont law as to whether there is sufficient authority to impose sales or use tax on cloud service providers.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. (more…)
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.
BREAKING NEWS: Maryland Proposes (French) Tax on Advertising – Digital Platforms and Advertisers Beware!
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 [...]
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.
Recently passed budget legislation in both Connecticut and Rhode Island included tax increases on sales of digital goods and services. The Connecticut bill has been signed into law. The Rhode Island bill passed late last night awaits executive action. Below are brief summaries of the impacts of these bills on the sales taxation of digital goods and services (assuming the Rhode Island governor signs the bill) beginning October 1, 2019.
Legislators in Frankfort added a new “video streaming service” tax to the omnibus tax bill (HB 354) as part of a closed-door conference committee process before the bill was hastily passed in the House and Senate. Notably, the new video streaming service tax was not previously raised or discussed as part of HB 354 (or any other Kentucky legislation) before it was included in the final conference committee report that passed the General Assembly in March.
Specifically, as passed by the General Assembly, HB 354 will add “video streaming services” to the definition of “multichannel video programming service” subject to the telecom excise tax. This is the same tax imposition that the Department of Revenue argued applied to video streaming services in the Netflix litigation—an argument that was rejected by the courts in Kentucky and then subsequently settled on appeal. Under existing law, Kentucky taxes “digital property” under the sales and use tax. The term is broadly defined and applies to audio streaming services, but expressly carves out “digital audio-visual works” (i.e., downloaded movies, TV shows and video; defined consistently with the SSUTA) from the scope of the sales and use tax imposition. HB 354 would not modify the treatment of digital goods and services under the sales and use tax, and changes that would be implemented are limited to the telecom excise tax imposed on the retail purchase of a multichannel video programming service. (more…)
Judicial deference to state tax agencies puts taxpayers at a steep disadvantage and wastes time and resources on costly tax disputes. A united advocacy effort can help promote passage of state-level legislation that takes the tax administrator’s thumb off the scales of justice in administrative and judicial review of tax determinations.
Federal Digital Goods Bill: Rules of the Road for State Sales and Use Taxation of Digital Goods and Services
Today, US Senators John Thune (R-SD) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) filed the Digital Goods and Services Tax Fairness Act of 2018 (S.3581) for reintroduction in the United States Senate. A companion version is expected to be reintroduced tomorrow in the House of Representatives by Representatives Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Steve Cohen (D-TN). This bill, if enacted, would establish a national framework for how states apply their sales and use tax systems to sales and uses of digital goods and digital services. The bill would resolve current uncertainty regarding which state has the right to tax certain sales and whether a state has the right to tax the sale of a digital good or digital service. The bill also would establish uniform, destination-based, sourcing rules for sales of such products and services.
Sales of digital goods and services are highly mobile transactions. A customer could have a billing address in one state and download a digital good from the seller’s server in another state while the customer is traveling in a third state. Whether such a transaction has sufficient attributes in any one of the three states to give rise to the right to tax the transaction by any one of them is open to question. Assuming one of the states has the right to tax the sale, there is a question as to which state that might be. The bill would clearly specify that one of the states has the right to tax the sale and clearly delineate which state has such taxing rights. (more…)
Illinois Department of Revenue Issues Post-Wayfair Guidance Implementing October 1 Economic Nexus Law
In June 2018, just before the US Supreme Court ruling in Wayfair, Illinois enacted an economic nexus standard modeled after South Dakota’s law (see our prior coverage). The new Illinois standard takes effect on October 1, 2018. On September 11, the Illinois Department of Revenue (Department) issued an emergency rule (Regulation 150.803), together with other guidance found on its website, intended to assist remote retailers with compliance with the new law.
The Regulation was effective immediately. Retailers should note the following key features of the Regulation. (more…)