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D.C. Proposes Law to Allow Indefinite Suspension of Limitation Period for Assessment and Collection

The Fiscal Year 2016 Budget Support Act of 2015 (BSA), introduced by the Washington, D.C. Council at the request of Mayor Muriel Bowser on April 2, 2015, contains a subtitle (see Title VII, Subtitle G, page 66-67) that would give the Office and Tax and Revenue (OTR) complete discretion to indefinitely suspend the period of limitation on assessment and collection of all D.C. taxes—other than real property taxes, which contain a separate set of rules and procedures. The change to the statute of limitation provision would eliminate a fundamental taxpayer protection that exists today in all states. Those concerned should reach out to members of the D.C. Council to discourage adoption of this subtitle of the BSA.

Current Law

Under current law, the amount of tax imposed must be assessed (in other words, a final assessment must be issued) within three (3) years of the taxpayer’s return being filed. See D.C. Code § 47-4301(a). Practically speaking, this requires the mayor to issue a notice of proposed assessment no later than two (2) years and 11 months after the return is filed—to allow the taxpayer the requisite 30 days to file a protest with the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH). See D.C. Code § 47-4312(a). As the law reads today, the running of the period of limitation is suspended between the filing of a protest and the issuance of a final order by OAH, plus an additional 60 days thereafter. See D.C. Code § 47-4303. The District has 10 years after the final assessment to levy or begin a court proceeding for collections. See D.C. Code § 47-4302(a).

Proposed Changes

The BSA would extend the limitation period for assessment and collection, as follows:

  1. The BSA would add a new provision to statutorily require the chief financial officer (CFO, the executive branch official overseeing the OTR) to send a notice of proposed audit changes at least 30 days before the notice of proposed assessment is sent; and
  2. The BSA would toll the running of the statute of limitation on assessment and collection during the period after the CFO/OTR issues the aforementioned notice of proposed audit changes until the issuance of a final assessment or order by OAH.

The BSA does not indicate an applicable date for these changes. As a result, the provision likely would be applicable to any open tax period, effectively making the change retroactive to returns already filed.

Effect

By changing the law to toll the statute of limitation for the period after OTR issues a notice of proposed audit changes, the BSA would allow OTR to unilaterally control whether the three-year statute of limitation is running. The current statute requires that OTR issue its notice of proposed assessment before the expiration of the three-year statute—and gives taxpayers the ability to protest such notices before the OAH. By tolling the statute upon issuance of a notice of proposed audit changes, which is not subject to review by OAH, the BSA would strip taxpayers of the [...]

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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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