Articles Tagged with “State and Local Tax Attorney”

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Earlier in 2017, Premier Netcomm Solutions LLC (“Premier”) lost on reconsideration in New Jersey tax court.  The case dealt with the taxability of software as a service (“SaaS”) dating back to an audit from 2004 through 2005.  After initially beating for state, the court overturned a prior decision on reconsideration, which ultimately upheld New Jersey’s tax assessment.

Premier seems to be a classic IT provider in that it provides services such as network supports, internet access, consulting and design of IT and telephone projects, trouble shooting, remote training, data back-up, and network monitoring for businesses.  In the original decision, the court sided with Premier that its sales were not subject to sales tax.  The court concluded that prior to 2005, sales of services related to prewritten software were not taxable. In so doing the court invalidated New Jerseys tax assessment against Premier.

Unhappy with the decision, New Jersey’s Division of Taxation sought reconsideration, which is very difficult to prevail on.  The Court seemed to grant reconsideration because the original case erred fundamentally on its analysis.  Primarily, the court originally believed the law did not tax such services until its 2005 amendment.  However, the amendment was really based on New Jersey’s membership into the Streamline Sales and Use Tax Agreement (“SSUTA”) in 2005, which required it to adopt a uniform definition.  Therefore, based on a 2004 Bulletin, the court reconsidered the case and ruled that the services were and have been subject to tax since 2004.

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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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Colorado clearly does not stick to the trends. Whether it is legalizing marijuana or attempting to get Northern Colorado to become the 51st state, Colorado has been all over the news during the past year. Recently, the state had on its ballot an interesting tax that stayed in line with Colorado’s unusual politics. Specifically, on November 5, 2013, Colorado voters passed the pot tax.

On its face, the tax appears to operate similar to somewhat steep excise tax. It appears that recreational marijuana sales will be subject to a 25% tax which goes into effect on January 1, 2014. Of the 25%, 15% will be allocated to public school construction projects and 10% will go to funding enforcement regulation on the retail pot sales. This excise tax, which is similar to tobacco and cigarette taxes, is in addition to 2.9% sales tax at the retail level. Colorado estimates that the tax will generate some $35 million in year one and $67 million in year two. In total, pot users will pay an estimated $230-$250 per ounce of weed in Colorado.

Interestingly, the tax is not as steep as Washington’s efforts to impose hefty tax on the newly legalized drug. Washington imposes a 25% tax on every sale in the retail chain and it estimates the tax will raise about $2 billion in Washington in the first five years.

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Each year, many states announce amnesty programs in an effort to incentivize taxpayers to pay state tax. Most programs, in one form or another, offer partial or full interest and penalty abatements if taxpayers pay back taxes owed. While the programs seem like a win for states in theory, as a state and local tax attorney, I can promise that such programs lead to problems. Auditors in the various states are told to close down improperly completed audits in an effort to get taxpayers in the amnesty program. This, in turn, leads to poorly conducted audits that must be protested and litigated. In short, state and local tax professionals in those states should be licking their chops for the bombardment of work that will likely ensue.

The most recent states to implement a version of an amnesty program are Arkansas, Connecticut, and Louisiana.

Arkansas’ amnesty program applies to franchise taxes and runs from September 1st through December 31st, 2013. In order to participate, taxpayers must submit all reports and forms and pay the computed tax to the state. If a taxpayer meets the requirement of the deal, then Arkansas will waive all interest and penalties for delinquent taxpayers.

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Part 3: Audit Ends, What Do I Do?
A daunting reality sets in for many Florida taxpayers when the audit report is issued. To say the majority of Florida taxpayers under a Florida sales tax audit have a meltdown is an understatement. Many taxpayers and other Florida tax professionals believe that this is the end of the road for their journey to a sizeable tax bill. However, this is when our job as Florida tax attorneys really begins.

Upon the completion of a Florida tax audit, the Department of Revenue issues a notice of proposed assessment (a “NOPA”). The NOPA is an important document for two reasons. First, it signals that the Florida sales tax auditor is done with the file at the local office and has sent it to Tallahassee. More importantly, if the Taxpayer or the Florida state tax professional does not know what to do, the NOPA means the company better act fast.

Pursuant to Florida law and the NOPA itself, the assessment becomes final in 60 days if it is not contested. This means that the Taxpayer or its CPA or attorney has 2 months to file a protest with Tallahassee. For those of you more familiar with IRS controversy work, this is the equivalent to filing an appeal with the IRS. For the first time, the Taxpayer and its power of attorney is dealing with a different group of theoretically unbiased conferees that evaluate the case with judgment, rather than in black and white, like the auditors are trained to see the world. A well drafted protest can be an impressive presentation by the Taxpayer if done correctly, and it should contain factual and legal assertions to refute the audit assessment. We generally also elect to have a conference with the Department, at which point we very simply lay out the posture of the case and point them to what we believe to be important.
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Part 2 Common Pitfalls

There are several issues that often surface during the audit. Many of the issues that surface are that the client does not have records, the client does not have a complete or updated QuickBooks or accounting software file, or the client has collected and remitted the incorrect amount of tax.

The most common issue we face is the situation in which the Florida taxpayer does not have adequate records to do a complete audit. Based on many of our clients, Florida is an extremely dangerous place to live. Until I became a Florida sales and use tax attorney, I was not aware of the high number of floods, fires, earthquakes, tsunamis and other natural disasters that destroy all of a business’s records. On a serious note, many taxpayers believe that not having any records is the best way to escape tax liability. However, generally the opposite is true. The more records that are available, generally, the more we can do to explain discrepancies that arise during the audit. Therefore, we recommend that a Taxpayer does its very best to salvage as many records as possible for review even if they are extremely damaged due to mother nature.

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Part 3 – Is the Item Taxable?

This article is a follow up to a previous article I wrote in dealing with tobacco tax audits. In addition to looking at the applicable statute of limitations and whether excise tax and shipping charges are included in the tax base any experienced Florida tobacco and beverage tax attorney should closely examine the taxable base to which the tax is being applied. As stated in other parts of the article, Chapter 210 Florida Statutes applies a surcharge and an excise tax on tobacco products. Part I of Chapter 210, F.S. works the same way for the tax on cigarettes. It is also noteworthy that the Florida beverage tax is applied in the same manner. It is simple math; the tax rate times the tax base equals the tax due. Being that the tax rate cannot be changed, a careful examination of the tax base must be undertaken to ensure the smallest amount of tax liability for the Florida taxpayer.

Although, the DBPR takes the position that many items are subject to the beverage and tobacco tax. However, as experienced tobacco and beverage attorneys we have learned that the almighty Florida DBPR often includes items that are not included in the taxing statute. Remember, the item has to be within the four corners of taxing statute to be taxable, and any ambiguities are to be resolved against the agency and in favor of the taxpayer. With that in mind, section 210.01, F.S., defines a cigarette to mean:

any roll for smoking, except one of which the tobacco is fully naturally fermented, without regard to the kind of tobacco or other substances used in the inner roll or the nature or composition of the material in which the roll is wrapped, which is made wholly or in part of tobacco irrespective of size or shape and whether such tobacco is flavored, adulterated or mixed with any other ingredient.

Similarly, section 201.25, F.S., defines a tobacco product as

loose tobacco suitable for smoking; snuff; snuff flour; cavendish; plug and twist tobacco; fine cuts and other chewing tobaccos; shorts; refuse scraps; clippings, cuttings, and sweepings of tobacco, and other kinds and forms of tobacco prepared in such manner as to be suitable for chewing; but “tobacco products” does not include cigarettes, as defined by s. 210.01(1), or cigars.

Is the item in which the DBPR is trying to assess you or your client included in those definitions? We have found that the DBPR often assesses items that are arguably outside of Chapter 210 and the 560’s (for beverage tax). Are items like cigar wrappers subject to the tax? What items have you encountered that may not be a tobacco product for chapter 210, F.S., purposes?
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Aside from the Marketplace Fairness Act, cloud computing has dominated the sales tax world in 2013. With more and more companies using software as a service (SaaS), platform as a service (“PaaS“), and infrastructure as a service (“IaaS“), more and more uncertainty has arisen in the sales tax world.

Cloud.jpgCloud computing is a service that allows users or members of a business to access software from a remote server. It allows businesses to access the same integrated software without the expensive hardware costs because the software is internet based rather than physically based in an office.

Most states with a sales tax, tax software to some extent. Many states tax the purchase of canned software. Canned software is software produced by a manufacturer and not changed or altered for a specific company. If the software is altered, it is not canned software and not subject to sales tax in many states. Still, other states look to whether the customer receives something tangible like a disk with their purchase to determine whether software is taxable or not. But, how does this work if the canned software is accessed in the “cloud”? Is it a sale of tangible personal property? Is it the sale of canned software? A number of problems have been created by this fairly recent innovation, and states are struggling to keep pace.
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In an attempt to quit smoking, many Americans purchase a piece of equipment for about $50 and e-juice for about $15. When heated by the equipment, the e-juice, nicotine laced liquid, becomes an inhalable vapor that can be used as a cigarette replacement for many nicotine addicts. The electronic cigarette, or e-cigarette, first became widely available in Europe in the early 2000’s. From there, the industry grew to several thousand users in 2006, and now some analysts estimate that this has become roughly a two billion dollar industry in 2013. Are these battery-powered devices safe? What are the long term effects of inhaling nicotine through an e-cigarette?

The Food and Drug Administration’s (“FDA”) current stance appears to be that it does not know the answer to either of these questions. However, unlike medications and patches, the e-cigarettes have not been approved by the FDA. Many officials, such as tobacco policy analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures, Karmen Hanson, seem to think so. Hanson went so far as to believe that the e-cigarettes are a “prominent public issue,” and “it’s up to the states” to deal with. Others, such as Rep. Paul Ray (Utah), strongly believe the e-cigarettes to be “terrible stuff,” and that “the industry . . . kills their clientele” by “peddling stuff that they know will absolutely kill people.”

On the other side of the coin are proponents of the product, like Stauffer of West Point, Utah. He has claimed that the e-cigarette eliminated smoking from his life. He does not believe vilifying the product is warranted because “[q]uitting smoking has never been easier.” He truly believes the e-cigarette is less harmful for his body and if Utah “is serious about helping [the people] make healthy choices, then [e-cigarettes] should be encouraged.”

So what do states do when they believe that a particular practice is against public policy, they are unsure about a product, or they want to influence certain behavior?
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On May 6, 2013, Senate passed the Marketplace Fairness Act . It was announced that the bill passed with a vote of 69 to 27. The bill provides for an exception for businesses with sales of less than $1 million annually. States which are members to the Streamlined Sales and Use Tax Agreement are automatically granted the authority and the remaining states are required to grant the authority. The legislation will now make its way to the House of Representatives, where anything can happen.

The Act is an attempt to provide clarity and certainty in a grey area of the law. While many proponents of the bill seem to think it puts all Internet retailers on a equal playing field, it is really just an enforcement tactic of existing tax law. Those not in favor of the law point to the administrative burdens placed on small taxpayers. It is true that software exists to calculate the tax rates in the countries 45 states with sales tax and some 9,600 jurisdictions, it may becomes extremely burdensome and expensive to determine what is and is not taxable.

I look forward to informing everyone about more developments in this evolving area of the law. I also welcome any comments on the issue.