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Maryland General Assembly Sends Digital Advertising Tax to Governor; Nearly Identical Bill Pending in New York

With gatherings larger than 50 people banned and the State House cleared of visitors, on March 18, 2020, Maryland’s legislature approved HB 732, which contains a massive new punitive tax on digital advertising services, and sent it to Governor Larry Hogan (R) for his consideration.

Digital Advertising Gross Revenues Tax

Contradicting the clear legislative trend in the advertising space to exempt the facilitation of advertising services (but tax the consumer transactions that may result therefrom), HB 732 would impose a new, one-of-a-kind tax on the annual gross revenue of digital advertising services that are deemed to be provided in the State. The proposed tax contains a tiered tax rate structure (arbitrarily determined based on the advertising service provider’s global annual gross revenues) that would allow for a tax rate of up to a whopping 10% of the annual gross revenue in the State derived from digital advertising services. As passed, HB 732 would take effect July 1, 2020, and the new tax would apply to all taxable years beginning after December 31, 2020.

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BREAKING NEWS: New York Considers 5% Gross Receipts Tax on Almost Every Corporation

On January 21, A. 9112 was introduced in the New York Assembly. An identical Senate companion bill, S. 6102, has been referred to the Senate Budget & Revenues Committee after being introduced in May 2019. The bills would impose an additional 5% tax on the gross income of “every corporation which derives income from the data individuals of this state share with such corporations.” The bills do not provide further detail or limitation on the scope of the proposed new imposition language.

The bills would also establish a six-member Data Fund Board, to invest the tax revenue collected and distribute net earnings “to each taxpayer of the state” in a manner determined by the Board. If enacted without amendment, the bills would take effect 180 days after being signed into law.

As written, the proposed New York tax would unconstitutionally apply to all income worldwide earned by a company deriving income from data from New Yorkers. A state tax on a multistate business must “be fairly apportioned to reflect the business conducted in the State.”

The tax as written is so broad it would apply to essentially every business. Every business collects data and uses it to market or complete a sale, and any corporation with data-derived income from New York customers would be subject to the new tax on their total revenue. “Data” is a broad term. If a company collects zip codes or phone numbers at checkout, asks for email address to join a mailing list, counts customers coming in or out of the store, collects website click or open data, or asks for information from customers, such as their size or shipping address, before making a sale, it apparently would be subject to this tax. For many such businesses, a gross receipts tax at a 5% rate would wipe out all profits, equivalent to an over 100% corporate income tax. At that point, a tax for engaging in data collection might become so punitive it violates the Due Process Clause. Another obvious due process problem is that the lack of definitions and the broad sweep of this proposal could invalidate it on void for vagueness grounds.

Any meaningful attempts to address these constitutional issues, such as by specifically applying the tax only on big tech companies, would add new problems under the Permanent Internet Tax Freedom Act (PITFA). A tax on digital use of data while the non-digital use of data is not similarly taxed would run afoul of PITFA’s ban on tax discrimination against electronic commerce.

First Maryland, then Nebraska, now New York. The repeated introduction of targeted taxes on digital companies early in 2020 seems to be the start of an alarming trend of legally suspect tax proposals that we are keeping a close eye on.




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…)




New Trend Developing? Another Digital Advertising Tax Proposal

On January 14, LB 989 was introduced in the Nebraska Legislature, which would impose sales and use tax on “the retail sale of digital advertisements.” The bill defines “digital advertisement” as “an advertising message delivered over the Internet that markets or promotes a particular good, service, or political candidate or message” (see pages 5-6 of the bill). The definition is a sweeping one, but the exact scope is unclear as the terms used are not further defined. It is also unclear how a taxable digital advertising transaction would be sourced if the proposed legislation is enacted.

The digital advertising tax proposed in the bill would have an effective date of October 1, 2020. Nebraska’s state sales tax rate is 5.5%, with local sales taxes up to an additional 2%.

Similar to Maryland’s SB 2 proposal, because Nebraska would tax digital advertising but not tax non-digital advertising, the proposed tax raises a series of legal concerns (above and beyond the obvious policy concerns).  For example, the tax would be a “discriminatory tax” prohibited by the Permanent Internet Tax Freedom Act (PITFA). The proposal also raises serious First Amendment (singling out digital commercial speech for tax) and Equal Protection (lack of rational basis for tax only on digital advertising) issues.

Practice Note: If enacted, LB 989 would create an uncharted and sweeping tax on digital platforms and advertisers. While this bill will have an uphill battle in 2020 (for example, Nebraska has a short, 60-day legislative session this year and Nebraska has a filibuster rule) the repeated introduction of digital advertising tax bills early in 2020 state legislative sessions may be the start of an alarming trend of legally suspect tax proposals that we are keeping a close eye on.  Businesses impacted by the Maryland and Nebraska digital advertising tax proposals are encouraged to contact the authors to discuss these legislative developments further.




BREAKING NEWS: Maryland Proposes (French) Tax on Advertising – Digital Platforms and Advertisers Beware!

On January 8, SB 2 was introduced to establish a new digital advertising gross revenue tax of up to 10% on “annual gross revenues of a person derived from digital advertising services in the state.” This uncharted new tax would make Maryland the first state or locality in the United States to impose a targeted tax on the gross revenue of digital advertising services.

The bill defines “in the state” as appearing on the user’s device located in the state (determined based on either the user’s IP address or reasonable knowledge). “Digital advertising services” is defined as “advertisement services on a digital interface, including advertisements in the form of banner advertising, search engine advertising, interstitial advertising, and other comparable advertising services.” The definition uses the word “includes” rather than “means,” enabling the definition to be read even more broadly. “Digital interface” is defined as “any type of software, including a website, part of a website, or application, that a user is able to access.”

The tax applies at a sliding scale:

  • 2.5% for person with global annual gross revenues of $100 million or more
  • 5% for person with global annual gross revenues of $1 billion or more
  • 7.5% for person with global annual gross revenues of $5 billion or more
  • 10% for person with global annual gross revenues of $15 billion or more

The bill would require quarterly estimated tax payments and an annual return and provides that willful failure to file a digital advertising gross revenues tax return is a misdemeanor subject to a $5,000 fine and 5 years’ imprisonment.

The bill is co-sponsored by Senator Thomas Miller (D), the outgoing Senate President, and Senator William Ferguson (D), the incoming Senate President. Maryland legislative leaders have been hinting at new taxes on the digital economy, digital downloads, and streaming subscriptions as they decide how to fund a proposed $825 million per year education spending increase. Governor Hogan (R) opposes the education spending increase as too expensive, amounting to a $6,000 per family tax increase, and in response Democrats last week ruled out raising income, sales, or property tax rates. We therefore may see additional digital taxation bills aside from this one.

Because Maryland would tax digital advertising but not tax non-digital advertising, the tax is a “discriminatory tax” prohibited by the Permanent Internet Tax Freedom Act (PITFA). The use of an arbitrary threshold of global annual gross revenues, while perhaps politically popular, serves to tax larger global advertising service providers at a higher tax rate than their domestic counterparts, in violation of the Commerce Clause of the US Constitution.

The proposal also raises serious First Amendment (singling out digital commercial speech for a punitive tax) and Equal Protection (lack of rational basis for punitive tax on digital advertising) issues. For example, the Maryland Court of Appeals has held that municipal taxes on advertising media were unconstitutional for singling out for taxation newspapers and radio and television stations entitled to first amendment immunities.  See City of Baltimore [...]

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Kentucky to Begin Taxing Video Streaming Services under Telecom Tax

Legislators in Frankfort added a new “video streaming service” tax to the omnibus tax bill (HB 354) as part of a closed-door conference committee process before the bill was hastily passed in the House and Senate. Notably, the new video streaming service tax was not previously raised or discussed as part of HB 354 (or any other Kentucky legislation) before it was included in the final conference committee report that passed the General Assembly in March.

Specifically, as passed by the General Assembly, HB 354 will add “video streaming services” to the definition of “multichannel video programming service” subject to the telecom excise tax.  This is the same tax imposition that the Department of Revenue argued applied to video streaming services in the Netflix litigation—an argument that was rejected by the courts in Kentucky and then subsequently settled on appeal. Under existing law, Kentucky taxes “digital property” under the sales and use tax. The term is broadly defined and applies to audio streaming services, but expressly carves out “digital audio-visual works” (i.e., downloaded movies, TV shows and video; defined consistently with the SSUTA) from the scope of the sales and use tax imposition. HB 354 would not modify the treatment of digital goods and services under the sales and use tax, and changes that would be implemented are limited to the telecom excise tax imposed on the retail purchase of a multichannel video programming service. (more…)




Nevada Bill Proposes Broad New Excise Tax on Sales of Digital Goods and Services

A bill (AB 447) was introduced on March 25th in the Nevada Assembly that would create a broad new excise tax on the retail sale of “specified digital products” to Nevada customers. Instead of expanding the scope of Nevada’s sales and use tax, the bill would enact an entirely new chapter of the Revenue and Taxation Title imposing this new excise tax. Currently, sales of digital products, including electronic transfers of computer software, are not subject to the sales and use tax. Thus, the new proposal represents a major policy departure from the status quo. The introduced bill also would create inconsistencies with the Streamlined Sales and Use Tax Agreement (SSUTA)—to which Nevada is a member state—and contains many potential violations of federal law under the Permanent Internet Tax Freedom Act (PITFA) that do not appear to have been carefully considered.

Broad New Tax

Specifically, the bill would impose the new excise tax “upon the retail sale of specified digital products to an end user in this State . . . [and] applies whether the purchaser obtains permanent use or less than permanent use of the specified digital product, whether the sale is conditioned or not conditioned upon continued payment from the purchaser and whether the sale is on a subscription basis or is not on a subscription basis.” Based on this broad imposition, subscription-based services and leases or rentals of “specified digital products” would be covered by the new tax. “Specified digital products” is defined as “electronically transferred: (a) Digital audio works; (b) Digital audio-visual works; (c) Digital books; (d) Digital code; and (e) Other digital products.” Except for “other digital products,” these terms are defined consistently with the definitions in the SSUTA (of which Nevada is a member). The bill defines the term “other digital products” as “greeting cards, images, video or electronic games or entertainment, news or information products and computer software applications.” (more…)




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