Commercial Activity Tax

“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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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

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.
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