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Vermont Bill Would Repeal Cloud Software Tax Exemption

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 Specifically, even if the cloud tax exemption is repealed, substantial uncertainty remains under Vermont law as to whether there is sufficient authority to impose sales or use tax on cloud service providers.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…)




A Steep Slope — Vermont Supreme Court Finds AIG Not Unitary With a Ski Resort Based On a Clear and Cogent Evidence Burden of Proof

In the first Vermont Supreme Court decision addressing combined unitary reporting since Vermont’s combined reporting regime became effective in 2006, the court affirmed a lower court’s decision that AIG, the multinational insurance company, was not unitary with a ski resort operated by a subsidiary in Vermont; accordingly, a combined report covering the two businesses was not required. The decision is important because it lays the foundation for future unitary cases in Vermont.

The court agreed with AIG that there were no economies of scale between the operations of AIG and the ski resort. “Because [the entity] is a ski resort and therefore its business type is not similar to AIG’s insurance and financial service business, there is no opportunity for common centralized distribution or sales, and no economy of scale realized by their operations.” On centralization of management, the court noted that although AIG controlled the appointments to the ski resort’s board and management, this did not translate into “actual control” over the ski resort’s operations. Lastly, the Vermont Department of Taxes attempted to argue functional integration based primarily on AIG’s influx of working capital to the ski resort. The court rejected this assertion stating the funding “served an investment rather than operational function. The financing was not part of an AIG operational goal to grow part of its business. Further, there is no operational integration between AIG’s insurance and financial businesses and the ski resort operated by [the resort].”

The case is interesting because it involved whether an instate entity was unitary with its parent. For the year at issue, Vermont had a three factor apportionment formula with a double-weighted sales factor. Presumably, the ski resort had a high Vermont apportionment factor and relatively little income, so including AIG in the combined group increased AIG’s Vermont apportionment factor without significantly  diluting its income.

Interestingly, the court addressed AIG’s burden of proof on the unitary issue. The taxpayer argued that a preponderance of the evidence standard should apply. The Vermont Supreme Court disagreed. Looking to the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Container Corp. as well as to decisions of other states, the taxpayer has the burden of proving by “clear and cogent” evidence that its operations are not unitary.  Interestingly, the court suggested that one California court decision that applied a preponderance of the evidence standard to a unitary question was distinguishable because that case involved a taxpayer claiming that unity existed — and AIG was claiming that unity did not exist. This disparate burden depending on the direction of the unitary argument may prove important to taxpayers seeking to bring entities or operations into a combined report in Vermont.

State tax professionals may react to this decision in a manner similar to the way many reacted when the Court of Appeals of Arizona decided Talley Industries and Woolworth. Those decisions engendered substantial hope that courts — and, ultimately, state revenue agencies — would analyze unitariness not on the basis of a “checklist” or as a knee-jerk reaction to [...]

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U.S. Supreme Court’s Wynne Decision Calls New York’s Statutory Resident Scheme into Question

On May 18, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Comptroller of the Treasury of Maryland v. Wynne. In short, the Court, in a five-to-four decision written by Justice Alito, handed the taxpayer a victory by holding that the county income tax portion of Maryland’s personal income tax scheme violated the dormant U.S. Constitution’s Commerce Clause.

Specifically, the Court concluded that the county income tax imposed under Maryland law failed the internal consistency test under the dormant Commerce Clause, because it is imposed on both residents and non-residents with Maryland residents not getting a credit against that Maryland local tax for income taxes paid to other jurisdictions (residents are given a credit against the Maryland state income tax for taxes paid to other jurisdictions).

The Supreme Court emphatically held (as emphatically as the Court can be in a five-to-four decision) that the dormant Commerce Clause’s internal consistency test applies to individual income taxes. The Court’s holding does create a perilous situation for any state or local income taxes that either do not provide a credit for taxes paid to other jurisdictions or limit the scope of such a credit in some way.

The internal consistency test—one of the methods used by the Supreme Court to examine whether a state tax imposition discriminates against interstate commerce in violation of the dormant Commerce Clause—starts by assuming that every state has the same tax structure as the state with the tax at issue. If that hypothetical scenario places interstate commerce at a disadvantage compared to intrastate commerce by imposing a risk of multiple taxation, then the tax fails the internal consistency test and is unconstitutional.

Although the Wynne decision does not address the validity of other taxes beyond the Maryland county personal income tax, the decision does create significant doubt as to the validity of certain other state and local taxes such as the New York State personal income tax in the way it defines “resident.” New York State imposes its income tax on residents on all of their income and on non-residents on their income earned in the state; this is similar to the Maryland county income tax at issue in Wynne.

“Resident” is defined as either a domiciliary of New York or a person who is not a domiciliary of New York but has a permanent place of abode in New York and spends more than 183 days in New York during the tax year. N.Y. Tax Law § 605. (New York City has a comparable definition of resident.) N.Y.C. Administrative Code § 11-1705. Thus a person may be taxed as a statutory resident solely because they maintain living quarters in the state and spend more than 183 days in the state, even if those days have absolutely nothing to do with the living quarters; this category of non-domiciliary resident is commonly referred to a “statutory resident.” As such, under New York’s tax scheme, a person can be a resident of two states—where domiciled and where a statutory resident—and thus [...]

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The Vermont Department of Taxes Begins to Take a Close Look at Cloud Computing

On June 30, 2013, the Vermont sales tax moratorium on remote access to software expired.  At that time, the Vermont Department of Taxes (Department) reverted to its prior position that interpreted, without any analysis, the Vermont sales tax to apply to prewritten software that was “licensed for use and available from a remote server.”  Recently, the Department released draft regulatory language relating to the taxation of remotely accessed software and is currently seeking comments on the draft (due by October 1, 2014).

The draft regulations provide a great deal of guidance, some good and some bad.  On the positive side, the regulations recognize that a sale cannot occur unless “use or control [is] given [to] the purchaser with respect to the software” such that “the purchaser is able to use the software to independently perform tasks.”  This language comports with established legal authorities in the state regarding when sales occur, rather than simply stating that a sale has occurred when software is remotely accessed.  See, e.g., In re Merrill Theatre Corp., 415 A.2d 1327 (Vt. 1980) (finding no sale where “[the patron] never comes into possession of [the tangible property], and exerts no control over it” because the vendor was the one with “actual possession” of the property).

The draft regulations also contain a non-exhaustive list of nontaxable transactions, which provide much needed clarity in the area of cloud computing.  These include:  (1) a transaction whose true object is the purchase of a service (to which any transfer of software is merely incidental), (2) sales of data processing and information services, (3) a transaction where the seller processes the purchaser’s data on the seller’s software and (4) a transaction where the customer runs its own software on the seller’s hardware in a cloud computing environment (such arrangements are commonly referred to as Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS), and the draft regulations refer to them as such).  This list is particularly helpful and positive because it recognizes:  (1) the importance of the true object test in determining taxability rather than simply relying on licensing or other language in a contract, (2) that many cloud computing transactions are properly characterized as data processing services performed by the vendor rather than the transfer of software and (3) that IaaS is different in nature than Software as a Service (SaaS) and should be analyzed differently.  The IaaS discussion is particularly significant as many states have not directly addressed the subject.

The draft regulations are less successful when they attempt to provide factors for determining whether a taxable transfer of software has occurred.  These factors include whether:  (1) “[t]he purchaser can use the prewritten software with little or no intervention by the seller other than ‘help desk’ assistance;” and (2) “[t]he purchaser can use an organizational tool or function that is a function of seller’s software.”  The proposed factors are troublesome because of the lack of clarity regarding what it means to “use” the software or the functions of the software, which [...]

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