Recently passed budget legislation in both Connecticut and Rhode Island included tax increases on sales of digital goods and services. The Connecticut bill has been signed into law. The Rhode Island bill passed late last night awaits executive action. Below are brief summaries of the impacts of these bills on the sales taxation of digital goods and services (assuming the Rhode Island governor signs the bill) beginning October 1, 2019.
A trend is developing in response to aggressive Department of Revenue/Treasury policymaking regarding cloud computing. The courts and legislatures are addressing the issue and concluding that the remote access to software should not be taxed. Here are two recent developments that illustrate the trend:
Michigan – Auto-Owners Insurance Company v. Department of Treasury
On March 20, 2014, the Michigan Court of Claims held in Auto-Owners Insurance Company v. Department of Treasury that certain cloud transactions were not subject to use tax because the transactions were nontaxable services. The State has appealed this decision.
Auto-Owners engaged in transactions with numerous vendors to provide services and products that Auto-Owners used to conduct its business. The court grouped Auto-Owners’ transactions into transactions with six categories of providers: (1) Insurance industry providers; (2) Marketing and advertising providers; (3) Technology and communications providers; (4) Information providers; (5) Payment remittance and processing support providers; and (6) Technology providers. The transactions all involved, on some level, Auto-Owners accessing software through the Internet. No software was downloaded by Auto-Owners.
The Michigan use tax is imposed on the privilege of using tangible personal property in the state. Tangible personal property includes prewritten, non-custom, software that is “delivered by any means.” Mich. Comp. Laws § 205.92b(o). The court held that the transactions were not subject to use tax under the plain language of Michigan’s statute.
First, the court held that use tax did not apply because the court interpreted the “delivered by any means” language from Michigan’s statute to apply to the electronic and physical delivery of software, not the remote access of a third-party provider’s technology infrastructure. Second, the court held that the software was not “used” by Auto-Owners. Auto-Owners did not have control over the software as it only had the “ability to control outcomes by inputting certain data to be analyzed.” Third, the court held that even if prewritten computer software was delivered and used, the use was “merely incidental to the services rendered by the third-party providers and would not subject the overall transactions to use tax.” Michigan case law provides that if a transaction includes the transfer of tangible personal property and non-taxable services, the transaction is not taxable if the transfer of property is incidental to the services.
Practice Note: This decision is encouraging in that the court said that the Department was ignoring the plain meaning of the statute and overreaching, and determined that the legislature must provide specific language extending the sales and use tax for such transactions to be taxable. It is important to note that the Michigan statute uses the phrase “delivered by any means,” and the court focused on the definition of deliver in reaching its decision. This decision will likely have implications for other streamlined sales tax (SST) member states. Auto-Owners Ins. Co. v. Dep’t of Treas., No. 12-000082-MT (Mich. Ct. Cl. Mar. 20, 2014).
Idaho – H.B. 598