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Inside the New York Budget Bill: Proposed Sales Tax Amendments

Governor Andrew Cuomo’s 2015–2016 New York State Executive Budget Bill proposes several significant changes to New York’s sales and use tax statutes. Several of these changes, while touted by the governor as “closing certain sales and use tax avoidance strategies,” are much broader and, if enacted, will have a significant impact on the sales and use tax liabilities resulting from routine corporate and partnership formations and reorganizations.

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Three Strikes…Tax on Cloud Computing Out in Michigan?

If the Department of Treasury (Treasury) was hoping that the Michigan courts would simply overlook the previous two cloud computing losses this year in Thomson Reuters (previously covered here) and Auto-Owners (discussed here), they appear to have been mistaken.  Last Wednesday’s Court of Claims opinion in Rehmann Robson & Co. v. Department of Treasury marked the third Michigan decision this year to rule that cloud-based services are not subject to use tax in the state.  In Rehmann Robson, the Court of Claims found that the use of Checkpoint (a web-based tax and accounting research tool) by a large accounting firm was properly characterized as a non-taxable information service, despite Treasury’s continued effort to impose use tax and litigate similar cloud-based transactions.  This taxpayer victory comes just six months after the Michigan Court of Appeals in Thomson Reuters found that a subscription to Checkpoint was primarily the sale of a service under the Catalina Marketing test, Michigan’s version of the “true object” test, which looks to whether the use of tangible personal property was incidental to the provision of services when both are provided in the same transaction.  The Thomson Reuters decision reversed a 2013 Court of Claims opinion that granted summary disposition in favor of Treasury’s ability to tax the cloud-based service as “prewritten computer software.”

Analysis

While all three Michigan decisions issued this year reach the same conclusion, the most recent decision makes an explicit effort to affirmatively block any potential avenue Treasury may use to impose the use tax on cloud-based transactions.  For what it’s worth, the Rehmann Robson opinion was written by the same judge who wrote the Auto-Owners opinion released in March 2014, and contained an identical analysis.  Unlike the Thomson Reuters decision that found use of prewritten computer software in the state, but simply found it to be incidental to the nontaxable information services provided under Catalina Marketing, Auto-Owners (and now Rehmann Robson) both undercut the Treasury’s argument before it begins.

First, the court held that there was no tangible personal property transferred because the definition of “prewritten computer software” was not satisfied.  Like many other states, Michigan defines this term as software “delivered by any means.”  The court reasoned that because the accounting firm simply accessed information via the web that was processed via BNA and Thomson Reuter’s own software, hardware and infrastructure, there was no “delivery” under a conventional understanding of the word.  Absent delivery, there was no prewritten computer software for Treasury to impose tax upon.

Second, the Court of Claims went on to note that even if prewritten computer software was delivered, the accounting firm did not sufficiently “use” the software to impose the tax.  Because the accounting firm did not exercise a right or power over the software incident to ownership (other than the ability to control research outcomes by inputting research terms), there was no use.  The court explicitly turned down Treasury’s argument [...]

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Illinois Department of Revenue Intends to Extend Its Multifactor Post-Hartney Sourcing Regulations to Interstate Transactions

The saga over local sourcing of Illinois retailers’ occupation taxes is well known. The Illinois Department of Revenue has a dedicated webpage for the issue, and Inside SALT covered some of the litigation aspects last month (see Illinois Regional Transportation Authority Suffers A Setback In Its Sales Tax Sourcing Litigation).  A new chapter is unfolding now, with revised proposed local sourcing rules that would apply a multifactor sourcing analysis to both intrastate and interstate sales. The regulations may be made final as soon as next month, and retailers with complex retailing processes should consider how the rules could apply to their operations.

Background: The Illinois Department of Revenue Issued Emergency and Proposed Local Tax Sourcing Regulations after the Supreme Court of Illinois Invalidated Its Old Rules in Hartney

Illinois has perhaps the most complex sales and use tax system in the country. One driver of this complexity is the fact that the Retailers’ Occupation functions as a sales tax but is really an occupation tax measured by gross receipts – the tax imposed is on the privilege of engaging in the occupation of being a retailer. Illinois lets some local jurisdictions impose additional Retailers’ Occupation Taxes, and so the effective local rate can climb higher than the 6.25 percent statewide base rate, e.g., the 9.25 percent rate applicable in Chicago. As the tax is imposed on the business occupation rather than the sale itself, origin-based sourcing principles apply. And for out-of-state sales shipped into Illinois and not subject to Retailers’ Occupation Tax, retailers have only a use tax collection obligation at the 6.25 percent state rate.

For decades, the Department of Revenue’s regulations applied a bright-line test based on order acceptance to determine where the taxable retailing activity had occurred for local Retailers’ Occupation Tax sourcing purposes. Some taxpayers structured their operations in reliance on this approach. But the Supreme Court of Illinois struck down the bright-line order acceptance test in Hartney Fuel Oil Co. v. Hamer, 2013 IL 115130 (Nov. 21, 2013), holding that an evaluation of all the retailing activities was necessary to determine where the retailing occupation occurred and consequently to which local Retailers’ Occupation Taxes a transaction was subject. The old local tax sourcing regulations were invalidated.

After Hartney, the Department promulgated new emergency local tax sourcing rules, effective January 22, 2014 (see the Department of Revenue press release, letter to Joint Committee on Administrative Rules, sample rule text). The emergency rules also served as a framework for the initial proposed final rules. These emergency and initial proposed final rules applied to intrastate tax sourcing and did not affect the Department’s longstanding rule governing whether a transaction was subject to in-state Retailers’ Occupation Tax or merely an out-of-state use tax collection obligation, 86 Ill. Admin. Code 130.610.

The Newly Revised Proposed Regulations Generally Consider Five Primary Factors in Determining the Location of the Taxable Retailing Activity

After consulting stakeholders and receiving numerous comments, the Department substantially revised [...]

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