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Following Maryland’s Lead? We Guess Everyone Wants to Go to Court. Icy Challenges to Nebraska’s Advertising Services Tax Act Start to Emerge

Nebraska Governor Jim Pillen’s ambitious plan to provide $2 billion in property tax relief via an increase in the sales tax rate and an expansion of the sales tax base is stirring significant debate. Part of his proposal is embodied in the newly introduced Legislative Bills 1310 and 1354, known as the “Advertising Services Tax Act” (the Act), which aims to finance this tax relief by imposing a 7.5% gross revenue tax on advertising services. However, this initiative faces a wall of voter opposition. A recent Battleground Connect survey revealed that 70% of likely voters disapproved of increasing the sales tax rate to offset property taxes. It should come as no surprise that Nebraska voters would not want to follow Maryland’s lead. What is surprising is that Nebraska legislators are willing to tie the fate of their new tax to a law that is currently being challenged in court in Maryland after the state adopted a similar tax in 2021.

The heart of the controversy lies in the new advertising tax’s specifics. The tax only targets firms with US gross advertising receipts exceeding $1 billion, a threshold that effectively discriminates against out-of-state advertising service providers and implicates constitutional and federal laws governing interstate commerce.

The proposed law specifically excludes “news media entities” and targets out-of-state digital advertising platforms. “Advertising services” incorporates a range of services, including digital advertising services, related to advertisement creation and dissemination. The term also includes “online referrals, search engine marketing and lead generation optimization, web campaign planning, the acquisition of advertising space in the Internet media, and the monitoring and evaluation of website traffic for purposes of determining the effectiveness of an advertising campaign.” Advertising services does not include services provided by entities “engaged primarily in the business of news gathering, reporting, or publishing articles or commentary about news, current events, culture, or other matters of public interest.” A news media entity does not include “an entity that is primarily an aggregator or republisher of third-party content.” Taxing publishers of one type of content and not taxing others raises profound First Amendment concerns.

While facially the Act applies to all advertising, its real focus is on digital and internet advertising and this targeting raises multiple legal and policy concerns:

  • Impact on Nebraska Businesses and Consumers. The tax, though imposed largely on out-of-state service providers, will be passed through directly to local businesses when they buy advertising. Much like a sales tax, service providers can and will add a line-item charge of 7.5% on each invoice to the local business placing the advertisement, driving up the cost of advertising services for Nebraska businesses. These higher costs will be reflected in the prices of goods and services sold to Nebraska consumers or the profits of local businesses.
  • Potential for Litigation. Drawing parallels with Maryland’s digital advertising tax, which faced legal challenges and has already once been ruled unconstitutional and barred by federal law, Nebraska’s legislation would also lead to costly and [...]

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Fatally Flawed? Illinois Municipal League’s Model Streaming Subscription Tax

The Illinois Municipal League (IML) represents the interests of 219 home rule municipalities in Illinois.[1] The IML recently released a revised draft model, “Municipal Streaming Tax Ordinance,” (the model) for use by the home rule municipalities in imposing an “amusement tax” on, inter alia, music and video streaming services and online gaming.[2] If the subscriber’s residential street address is within the corporate limits of the municipality, the subscription fee would be subject to the tax.[3] However, the tax proposed by the model has at least two fatal flaws: it is barred by the Internet Tax Freedom Act (ITFA) as a discriminatory tax on electronic commerce and is an unconstitutional extraterritorial tax under the home rule article of the Illinois Constitution.[4]

NATURE OF THE STREAMING TAX

The model proposes a tax on the privilege of viewing an amusement, including electronic amusements that either “take place within the” municipality or are delivered to subscribers “with a primary place of use within the jurisdictional boundaries of” the municipality.[5] The model incorporates the definition of “place of primary use” from the Illinois Mobile Telecommunications Sourcing Conformity Act.[6] That statute requires sourcing to the subscriber’s “residential street address.”[7] The streaming tax operates like a familiar sales tax in that it is imposed on the subscriber but collected by the streaming provider and remitted to the municipality.[8] The model tax would also be imposed on “paid television programming” (sat TV), but not paid radio programming (sat radio), transmitted by satellite.[9] The tax is not imposed on transactions that confer “the rights for permanent use of an electronic amusement” on the customer.[10]

THE NATURE OF MUSIC AND VIDEO STREAMING AND ONLINE GAMING SUBSCRIPTIONS

There are many service providers that allow internet access to the databases of music, videos and games (content). Customers typically enter into an automatically renewing subscription agreement with the provider that allows access to a database such that the subscriber can “stream” the content from any fixed or mobile device with internet connectivity. Subscribers are able to access the content from anywhere at anytime so long as their subscription is current and they have internet access.

Because the subscription fees are paid in advance, there is no way for either the provider or the subscriber to know where and when the subscriber might access the content, if at all, during the month. Also, because the streaming tax proposed under the model is on the subscription fee, the tax must be collected before any streaming occurs. It may be that the subscriber doesn’t access the content either from within the corporate limits of the municipality or at all during the subscription period.

FATAL FLAWS

1. Barred Discriminatory Tax on Electronic Commerce

The ITFA generally bars state and local taxes that discriminate against electronic commerce.[11] A tax discriminates against electronic commerce if it is imposed on transactions that occur over the internet but not [...]

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