Multi-State Sales and Use Tax Attorneys
Multi-State Sales and Use Tax Attorneys
Multi-State Sales and Use Tax Attorneys
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If states could impose tax on every company that makes a sale within its borders, they would. Luckily, the Commerce Clause of the Constitution requires something known as “nexus,” or a connection, between a company and state in order for that company to be subject to state and local taxes. The standards for nexus can be ambiguous, particularly in recent years as a result of the radical changes to traditional business models that have occurred with the internet.

While nexus may seem easy to determine using the physical presence test, the definition of physical presence has in fact been something that courts across the country have struggled with since the beginning. That struggle has only become increasingly complicated with the internet and virtual marketplaces that no longer require a company to open a brick and mortar shop everywhere it wants to sell its products.

Recently, Washington state has found nexus with a company that made wholesale sales through infomercials. This particular company sent employees to Washington to participate in trade shows and other promotional events. However, they did not have a physical business location within the state.

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Hawaii was the most recent in a line of states to take a stance in the long tax battle between online travel companies, such as Priceline, Expedia and Orbitz, and states over what is commonly referred to as “tourist development taxes,” or “bed taxes.”  Over the last couple of years, states have fallen on both sides of the issue of whether hotel rooms are taxable at the price a hotel receives for a room or the price that an online travel company sells a room.  The Hawaii case, Travelocity.com, L.P. v. Hawaii Director of Taxation, involves two taxes, the first of which is called a “GET” or “general excise tax,” and the second of which is called a “TAT” or “transient accommodations tax.”

The 2015 court decision has been clarified this month in an announcement by the state that online travel companies were in fact liable for the “GET,” along with any penalties for late payment, on their portion of the sale price for hotel rooms located in Hawaii. However, online travel companies are not liable for the “TAT.” This is similar to states like Florida, in which the amount the online travel company receives for the rental of a room within Florida is not subject to local tourist taxes.

The state reasoned that the portion of the sale that online travel companies receive is in fact for “occupancy rights” that are used in their entirety within the state of Hawaii when the sale is for a room within the state. Under that reasoning, the state determined that the revenue made by the online travel companies is subject to Hawaii state tax.

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Florida’s hotel reservation industry recently received an important victory relating to Tourist Development Tax (“TDT”).  TDT is a tax imposed on the privilege of renting, leasing or letting “for consideration any living quarters or accommodations in any hotel . . ., or condominium for a term of six months or less.”  § 125.0104(3)(a)1., Fla. Stat.  Notably, the TDT is due on the consideration paid for occupancy in the county. § 125.0104(3)(a)1., Fla. Stat.

In 2015, the Florida Supreme Court held that the “consideration paid for occupancy” is limited to the actual rental amount paid for occupancy of the room and not to mark-up charges and service charges associated with the reservations.  See Alachua County v. Expedia, Inc., 175 So. 3d 370 (Fla. 2015).

The issue in Sarasota Surf & Racquet Club Condominium Assn., Inc. v. Sarasota County, et al., Case No. 2015 CA 002612 NC (Fla. 12th Cir, July 11, 2016) was whether reservation and cleaning fees charged by a condominium association to guests during the reservation process were subject to TDT.  The County argued that the fees were part of the total consideration paid for occupancy and therefore subject to TDT.  The association argued that, pursuant to Expedia, only the rental amount was subject to TDT, not the reservation and cleaning fees charged in connection with the reservation.

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On December 14, 2015, the Supreme Court of the State of Utah issued its ruling in the case of DIRECTV and DISH Network v. Utah State Tax Commission. At issue in this case was a tax scheme that provided a sales tax credit for “an amount equal to 50%” of the franchise fees paid by pay-TV providers to local municipalities for use of their public rights-of-way.

The franchise fees were imposed for the running of cable and the construction of hubs on public property. Therefore, it is exclusively cable providers who pay franchise fees and qualify for the credit. Meanwhile, satellite providers such as DIRECTV are not subject to franchise fees and do not qualify for the tax credit.

DIRECTV argued that the tax credit was a violation of the dormant commerce clause of the Constitution. The dormant commerce clause is a legal term that means that states cannot either discriminate against interstate commerce or unduly burden interstate commerce because the power to do is in the hands of Congress. From a practical perspective, allowing 50 states to regulate interstate commerce differently would cause complete chaos, so the federal government wants to reserve that power for itself. Furthermore, states’ motivation to help their own local businesses would weaken the national economy as a whole.
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Since Quill in 1992, states only have the power to impose taxes on businesses if they have a “physical presence” in the State. For example, in order for a state to be allowed to require a company to charge sales tax, the company must have a place of business in the State, employees in the State or have a representative in the State. However, as the economy has shifted, more and more States are enacting an “economic nexus” to impose a tax on businesses.

But, what is economic nexus?
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On April 25, 2016 an important decision for the sports world came down from the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals involving Tom Brady. Being a sports fan and a tax lawyer, the opinion sparked my interest. Challenging the National Football League seemed to mirror the challenges we launch against government agencies every day. While the case is not exactly analogous for a few reasons, it was not that dissimilar for a taxpayer’s challenge to a government agency.

From a procedural perspective, the case stems from the infamous “deflate gate” scandal of the 2015 AFC Championship Game. During the game Tom Brady, of the four-time Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, allegedly instructed personnel to deflate the footballs below the legal pressure level in order to enhance his ability to grip the football. Specifically, after the game in question, the NFL officials determined that all 11 of the Patriots balls were inflated below the allowable level of 12.5 PSI, while none of the Colts balls were below.
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Our firm has been extremely involved with Florida’s wholesale tobacco tax for the past several years. Since Micjo in 2012, the Florida wholesale tobacco tax area has been fraught with seemingly endless litigation. In addition to the Micjo litigation, which focused on whether Florida tax applied to Federal Excise Tax (“FET”), there was another parallel of litigation which centered on a product called a blunt wrap or a cigar wrapper. Florida’s 1stDCA spoke loud and clear on April 6, 2016, by determining that the Wrap product is not subject to Florida tax, which appears to be a giant step towards putting an end towards at least 1 important issue for the industry.
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State and local governments are continually searching for ways to increase revenue through taxation of online companies conducting business within their state or county. One such way is by assessing a rental tax against online travel companies (“OTCs”).

OTCs typically facilitate the rental of a hotel room for vacationers and charge a fee for their services. OTCs play a significant role in the hotel rental business by providing consumers with a variety of choices based on price, location, and other factors. OTCs also provide benefits to hotels through promotion and advertising, and providing the ability for vacationers to rent a room at a lower price. Further, OTCs increase hotel occupancy rates and promote tourism thereby creating revenue for state and counties.
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Yet another state jumped on the band wagon to force out-of-state companies to collect and remit state tax. Specifically, South Dakota recently passed legislation adding sales and use tax collection requirements for out-of-state businesses conducting sales within the state. The legislation continues the trend of states enacting aggressive nexus statutes aimed at out-of-state online retailers.

The concept of nexus is derived from the Commerce Clause and the Due Process Clause of the United State Constitution. Essentially, these Federal limitations limit the ability of a state to tax business that takes place outside of the state. However, if a business has enough of connection to a state, then the state can force the business to abide by its state and local tax laws.

In Quill Corporation v. North Dakota (U.S. 1992), the U.S. Supreme Court held that nexus required a physical presence of the business within the state to require a business to follow a state’s state and local tax laws. The physical presence requirement has resulted in much litigation throughout the country. Essentially, there has been confusion as to how much of a connection to a state is required before a physical presence is established.

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I have been writing about the taxability of the online travel companies for some time. Recently, the Florida Supreme Court case of Alachua County v. Expedia, Inc., ruled that the local bed tax should be imposed on the amount the hotel received rather than the higher amount the customer pays the Online Travel Company (“OTC”). Similarly, the Court of Appeal of Wisconsin recently held that reservation facilitation services are not among the taxable services enumerated in section 77.52(2)(a)1, Wisconsin Statutes.

In the Wisconsin case, the Wisconsin Department of Revenue (“WDOR”) attempted to assess tax on any “internet service provider” that provides lodging throughout Wisconsin. The WDOR argued that the markup amount retained by the internet service provider is subject to tax under section 77.52(2)(a)1, Wisconsin Statutes.

However, the law worked very differently. Specifically, in Wisconsin, section 77.52(2)(a)1, Wisconsin Statutes, tax is only imposed on “the furnishing of rooms or lodging to transients by hotelkeepers, motel operators and other persons furnishing accommodations that are available to the public, irrespective of whether membership is required for use of the accommodations.” The crux of this case turns to the word “furnishing.” Is an online travel company “furnishing” a hotel room?