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US Treasury Issues Guidance on the ARPA Claw-Back Provision

Earlier this week, the US Department of the Treasury (Treasury) issued formal guidance regarding the administration of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA) claw-back provision. The guidance (Interim Final Rule) provides that the claw-back provision is triggered when there is a reduction in net tax revenue caused by changes in law, regulation or interpretation, and the state cannot identify sufficient funds from sources other than federal relief funds to offset the reduction in net tax revenue. The Interim Final Rule recognizes three sources of funds that may offset a net tax revenue reduction other than federal relief funds—organic growth, increases in revenue (e.g., a tax rate increase) and certain spending cuts (i.e., cuts that are not in an area where the recipient government has spent federal relief funds). According to the Treasury, this framework recognizes that money is fungible and “prevents efforts to use Fiscal Recovery Funds to indirectly offset reductions in net tax revenue.”

The Interim Final Rule also provides guidance on what is considered a change in law, regulation or interpretation that could trigger the claw-back (called covered changes), but that point remains somewhat ambiguous. The Rule provides that:

The offset provision is triggered by a reduction in net tax revenue resulting from ‘a change in law, regulation, or administrative interpretation.’ A covered change includes any final legislative or regulatory action, a new or changed administrative interpretation, and the phase-in or taking effect of any statute or rule where the phase-in or taking effect was not prescribed prior to the start of the covered period. [The covered period is March 3, 2021 through December 31, 2024.] Changed administrative interpretations would not include corrections to replace prior inaccurate interpretations; such corrections would instead be treated as changes implementing legislation enacted or regulations issued prior to the covered period; the operative change in those circumstances is the underlying legislation or regulation that occurred prior to the covered period. Moreover, only the changes within the control of the State or territory are considered covered changes. Covered changes do not include a change in rate that is triggered automatically and based on statutory or regulatory criteria in effect prior to the covered period. For example, a state law that sets its earned income tax credit (EITC) at a fixed percentage of the Federal EITC will see its EITC payments automatically increase—and thus its tax revenue reduced—because of the Federal government’s expansion of the EITC in the ARPA. This would not be considered a covered change. In addition, the offset provision applies only to actions for which the change in policy occurs during the covered period; it excludes regulations or other actions that implement a change or law substantively enacted prior to March 3, 2021. Finally, Treasury has determined and previously announced that income tax changes—even those made during the covered period—that simply conform with recent changes in Federal law (including those to conform to recent changes in Federal taxation of unemployment insurance benefits and taxation of loan [...]

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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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