Commercial Activity Tax
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Gross Receipts Taxes Face Policy and Legal Challenges

“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.

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BREAKING NEWS: No Physical Presence Required for Ohio CAT Imposition

Today, the Ohio Supreme Court issued its much-anticipated slip opinions in the three companion cases challenging Ohio’s Commercial Activity Tax (CAT) economic nexus standard. See Crutchfield Corp. v. Testa, Slip Op. No. 2016-Ohio-7760; Newegg, Inc. v. Testa, Slip Op. No. 2016-Ohio-7762; and Mason Cos., Inc. v. Testa, Slip Op. No. 2016-Ohio-7768.

In ruling 5-2 in favor of the state, the Ohio Supreme Court first held that physical presence is not a necessary condition for imposing the CAT because the CAT’s $500,000 sales-receipts threshold is adequate quantitative standard that ensures that taxpayer’s nexus with Ohio is substantial under the dormant Commerce Clause. In reaching this conclusion, the court specifically stated that “[o]ur reading of the case law indicates that the physical-presence requirement recognized and preserved by the United States Supreme Court for purposes of use-tax collection does not extend to business-privilege taxes such as the CAT.” (emphasis in original) Note that the court held this was the case regardless of whether the business-privilege tax is measured by income or receipts. In rebuking the taxpayer’s argument that Tyler Pipe affirmatively required some physical presence in the taxing state, the court held that physical presence is a sufficient (but not necessary) condition for imposing a business-privilege tax. See our prior blog on the oral argument for a more detailed description of the Tyler Pipe argument.

Second, the Ohio high court viewed the burdens imposed by the CAT on interstate commerce as not clearly excessive in relation to Ohio’s legitimate interest in imposing the CAT evenhandedly on sales receipts of in-state and out-of-state sellers. Citing these two bases, the Ohio Supreme Court affirmed the Board of Tax Appeals’ (BTA) decisions affirming the CAT assessments against the three appellants. The dissenting opinion viewed Quill as the proper standard for the Ohio CAT, and would have remanded the cases to the BTA for a determination of whether the taxpayer had physical presence.

Practice Note:

These companion cases were viewed by many as a potential vehicle to seek review of the continued viability of the Quill physical presence requirement (as Justice Kennedy called for in his widely-cited DMA concurrence last year). However, the narrow scope of the Ohio Supreme Court’s decision makes it difficult for this case to become the vehicle for the US Supreme Court to review Quill’s continuing viability for sales and use tax nexus.




No Surprises in Ohio CAT Nexus Oral Argument

Oral argument before the Ohio Supreme Court took place on May 3 in the three cases challenging Ohio’s Commercial Activity Tax (CAT) nexus standard.  Crutchfield, Inc. v. Testa, Case No. 2015-0386; Mason Cos. Inc. v. Testa, Case No. 2015-0794; Newegg, Inc. v. Testa, Case No. 2015-0483.  Ohio imposes its CAT on a business that has more than $500,000 in annual gross receipts in the state, even if the business has no physical presence in the state.  These three taxpayers have challenged this standard as violating the Commerce Clause substantial nexus test.

The oral argument in the cases proceeded as expected.  The majority of the time for both parties was taken up by questions from the bench.  Several judges quizzed the taxpayers’ counsel about the assertion that no business was conducted in Ohio.  The judges focused on activities such as products being received by customers in Ohio and software being placed on customers’ computers in Ohio to facilitate ordering or to track customer activity in Ohio.  The taxpayers’ counsel vigorously disagreed with this construction of the facts – noting that whatever happened in Ohio, all of the taxpayers’ actions occurred elsewhere.  He stated that the activities called out by the judges were no different than receiving and reviewing a catalog in the state.

The taxpayers’ counsel repeatedly cited to Tyler Pipe as the controlling law in this case – noting that before a state could impose a tax on a business, that business had to do something in the taxing state (or have something done on its behalf) that helped it establish and maintain a market in the state.  According to the taxpayers’ counsel, it was not enough that a market exists in the taxing state; the taxpayer had to be doing something in the taxing state.  He asserted that the taxpayer conducted no business activities in the state and thus Tyler Pipe prevented the state from imposing the CAT on them.  This became the taxpayers’ mantra throughout the argument. (more…)




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