As a Florida state and local tax attorney I live in the world of strange. Few attorneys or tax professionals are even aware of our peculiar area of the law. Even fewer attorneys or tax professionals have heard of, let alone practiced in the even stranger area of Native American Taxation. During my travels and while earning my LL.M. at NYU, I was one of the few fortunate souls to be exposed to this spin off of state and local tax. In fact, there are only two courses offered in the United States at the LL.M. level on this subject. Native American Taxation is poorly developed, the rules are unclear, and the cases make no sense whatsoever. While this is common for Florida attorneys like me who live in a world with no clear answers, living in this gray area of the law is uncomfortable for most lawyers and professionals.
From a legal perspective, a state’s ability to tax tribal activities turns on 1) whom is being taxed, Indian vs. Non-Indian and 2) where the transaction is taking place, on vs. off the reservation. One of the primitive cases, Utah Railroad, from 1885, stands for the idea that a state’s power to tax is at its weakest if the tax is imposed on a reservation and the burden falls on a member of a tribe. For example, Mescalero says that ad-valorem tax (property tax) cannot be imposed by a state for real estate located on a reservation. Similarly, a case called McClanahan holds that a state cannot tax a Native American’s income if it is derived from within the reservation’s borders. If sales are wholly made to Indians on the reservation then a state cannot impose its sales tax on those transactions. Warren trading.