Latest Scholarship

September 18, 2018

Blue State Republicans Fret Over 'Tax Reform 2.0' -- rightly so

By Darien Shanske and Dennis Ventry

[Cross-posted from The Hill]

The new tax bill, “Tax Reform 2.0,” is here, and it makes permanent the $10,000 cap on the state and local tax deduction (SALT) created by the Tax Cut and Jobs Act (TCJA) in December 2017.

Meanwhile, Republican politicians from districts where high percentages of taxpayers will be affected by the cap are wary of making the cap permanent. A deeper dive into theories of taxpayer psychology and tax policy indicates these politicians are right to be concerned.

First, consider how the cap will shrink refunds or increase tax bills for millions of taxpayers.

Early next year, Jane fills out her tax return using her preferred commercial tax prep software. She enters her property tax information, expecting, as in prior years, that her federal tax liability will drop considerably. But she surpassed the SALT cap of $10,000 when she previously entered her $12,000 in-state income taxes paid.

Under prior law, and when added to her $8,000 in property taxes, Jane would have received a $20,000 federal tax deduction. But the new law caps her deduction at $10,000, and so she loses the value of the additional $10,000 deduction.

How much does she lose? If she’s in the 24-percent tax bracket, Jane is worse off by $2,400, either resulting in a smaller refund or more tax.

And it gets worse for higher-income taxpayers. If Jane had a total of $110,000 in SALT paid rather than $20,000, she would lose the value of the additional $100,000 deduction. Since Jane would likely be in the top tax bracket of 37 percent, she’d owe $37,000 more in taxes.

Beyond the sting of owing more in tax, Jane also may feel that she is being punished for doing the right thing: opting to pay more in state and local taxes in exchange for better state and local public goods.

Research indicates that dismay at this tax change might be quite politically salient to the taxpayer when making voting decisions. Compare the large — and explicit — jump in tax liability described above to an increase in withholding taxes from periodic paychecks.

Moreover, millions of taxpayers are likely to react negatively to their higher-than-expected tax liability even if some of those same taxpayers pay lower taxes in the aggregate due to other changes in the law.

Indeed, the SALT cap is arguably already impacting property owners in jurisdictions whether they itemize or not because itemizing home buyers understand that their future property taxes will no longer be deductible over the cap and are accounting for that change in their home-buying budgets.

Homes are typically a taxpayers’ largest asset and voters can be aggressive in voting to protect the value of that asset.

Retaining the SALT cap is also fraught with political peril because taxpayers are sensitive to the reality and perception of procedural and substantive fairness. It is unlikely that the partisan, rushed, secretive and demonstrably flawed processes that produced TCJA and now Tax Reform 2.0 are going to be perceived as fair.

As for substantive fairness, Republicans have claimed repeatedly that most taxpayers will receive lower tax bills. But it is hard to explain why two-earner families in a handful of states should not get a tax cut on account of the SALT cap, to say nothing of the unequal political valence of the jurisdictions targeted by Congress with a tax increase.

It is possible for voters to be convinced by more abstract tax policy arguments. And politicians are to be commended when they pursue the correct policy and endeavor to persuade their constituents. But the policy arguments for the SALT cap are feeble.

One argument is that the cap is progressive in that wealthier taxpayers are affected by it. But the cap was embedded in a very regressive bill. A tax change that only subjects a small sliver of wealthier taxpayers — though not the wealthiest — to higher taxes is not fair.

Another unpersuasive argument is that the SALT cap corrects for the fact that low-tax states were subsidizing high-tax states through the deduction. For starters, this kind of inter-state accounting is corrosive to our polity.

Worse, it leaves out a key piece of information. Specifically, the states that have the most taxpayers affected by the cap are among the wealthiest states and thus are net “givers” to our common government. Capping the SALT deduction makes these states’ relative contribution even higher.

Another argument is that a full deduction for state and local taxes might not be appropriate as a matter of tax principle. Fair enough, but it’s incongruous in the context of a tax bill loaded with tax policy blunders and deviations from income tax principles, most notably new code section 199A, the so-called passthrough deduction, which is a bacchanal of unprincipled and regressive income tax policy.

Phase 2.0 will make this blunder permanent, so the claim that the SALT cap is a principled change rings quite hollow.

In any event, a more typical approach to situations where it is uncertain how much of a deduction is proper would have involved using a percentage cap, like 50 percent. Limiting the SALT deduction in such a way would have been unpopular as well, but it would have been principled. Other principled options exist.

Perhaps the biggest political danger posed by the SALT cap is that it could create millions of apostles carrying a simple message: Ultimately, very few taxpayers will receive their promised tax cut from Republican tax changes.

This is because borrowing trillions of dollars (with interest) to reduce taxes does not a tax cut make. While taxpayers at the very top of the income ladder will realize huge tax savings both now and in the future, the rest of us will ultimately face higher tax bills and/or fewer vital services.

The millions of taxpayers paying more in taxes next year due to the SALT cap are just the harbingers.

Darien Shanske and Dennis Ventry are professors at the University of California, Davis, School of Law. Shanske's areas of academic interest include taxation, particularly state and local taxation, local government law, public finance and political theory. Ventry is an expert in tax policy, tax practice and tax filing and administration.

 

 

July 30, 2018

States Should Conform to -- and Improve -- the New Federal Tax Provisions Meant to Counter Base Erosion

By Darien Shanske

[Cross-posted from Medium]

The United States used to tax multinational corporations (MNCs) on the basis of their worldwide income, except that most foreign source income would only be taxed when actually repatriated to the United States. This structure naturally created considerable incentive to strip income out of the United States and then not to repatriate it.

Now, thanks to the TCJA, the United States is ostensibly only going to tax MNCs on their US source income. This shift to a so-called territorial system means, of course, that MNCs will continue to have incentive to shift income abroad in order to avoid US tax. The TCJA has two separate provisions meant to counter this: GILTI and BEAT. One question for the states is whether they should conform to these provisions. I think the answer is yes. I also think it is clear that states should improve these provisions when they adopt them.

There is a preliminary question as to whether states can — as a matter of federal constitutional law — conform to these provisions. I think the answer is again yes, but the details of the state law will matter a great deal.

Not everyone agrees. For instance, the STAR Partnership, argues here that:

“Under the prior federal tax system, States generally did not include foreign income in their own tax bases, for both policy reasons and Constitutional limitations. States should continue to respect these policy and Constitutional rationales and avoid taxation of foreign income by excluding these provisions from their business tax bases.”

In short, according to a group of top state and local tax lawyers and policy wonks — who are quite explicitly representing the “business community” — states should not and cannot conform to the federal provisions meant to prevent base erosion. It is true that states do not tax foreign source income (in general) and that it is a tricky policy and constitutional question whether they can and/or should, but is it true that this is what states would be doing if they tax the repatriation or conform to GILTI or BEAT?

Consider some well-known and curious facts about the income of MNCs. First, there are some jurisdictions that are just unbelievably profitable for corporations. As Torslov, Wier and Zucman put it: “Foreign corporations . . . have extremely high profitability ratios in tax havens, e.g., 800% in Ireland. . . . By contrast, and strikingly, in almost all non-haven countries foreign firms are less profitable than local firms. Thus, there is a clear trace in global macro data of shifting from high- to low-tax affiliates, in such a way that profitability is systematically over-stated in tax havens and under-stated elsewhere.”

Many of those some super-profitable jurisdictions also house profits worth many multiples of their GDP, which would seem to be a real head scratcher. For example, the profits of US controlled subsidiaries in the Cayman Islands represented over 1000% of that island’s GDP in 2014. It is of course not possible for firms to earn profit in a jurisdiction many times the size of the jurisdiction’s economy.

We know why this money is taking a Caribbean vacation and we also know which legal structures got it there — see here for example.

In short, there was already a great deal of base erosion, and the two new provisions of federal law we are discussing are meant to counter it. (Indeed, there is a good argument that these provisions are roughly consistent with the anti-base erosion principles championed by the OECD.)

If a state were to conform to these base protection provisions or tax the repatriation, then a state is not — counter to the STAR Partnership — trying to tax “foreign” income, but trying to protect domestic income from being stripped out of their tax base.

This fact has an important legal implication. Again, it is true that the legal questions would be trickier for states looking explicitly to tax foreign income. Matters are different if a state is trying to tax domestic income and is simply trying to craft rules that lead to a better reflection of domestic income. As to designing their own tax systems to tax domestic income, states have a lot of leeway.

So, states can conform to these federal backup taxes and they should, but it is important to note that they should and could also improve these taxes. For more on how states should tax the repatriation, see here and kudos to NJ for doing so.

Here are a couple of examples of possible improvements to the backup provisions that are drawn in particular from Rebecca Kysar and Dan Shaviro. GILTI stands for “global intangible low taxed income” and the intuition behind the provision, consistent with the evidence above, is that certain low-tax jurisdictions are suspiciously profitable. Therefore, GILTI income is income that is earned beyond the normal expected return on an investment. There are numerous complexities involved in GILTI, many of which are not resolved, but for our purposes we can note that GILTI assumes a normal rate of return of 10%, which is rather high. A straightforward fix that a states could adopt would be conform to GILTI but use some lower rate tied to actual normal returns — perhaps a long-term corporate bond rate +2%. That would make the rate 6% at the moment.

As for the BEAT, the “Base Anti-Erosion Tax,” this is a minimum tax much like the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) for individuals. The idea is that a primary way of shifting income abroad is for MNCs to take large deductions for payments to related foreign corporations — say a US corporation paying a foreign affiliate in a low-tax jurisdiction for the use of intellectual property. The BEAT requires an MNC to add such payments back into the tax base; that broader base is then subject to a 10% rate. If the resulting tax liability is greater than the regular liability, then the taxpayer pays the minimum. As with GILTI, the BEAT has many design flaws. For instance, the BEAT only kicks in for relatively large corporations ($500 mn plus in gross receipts); it would make a lot of sense for states to adopt the BEAT, but at a lower threshold.

The TCJA emerged from such a flawed process that even its most reasonable ideas, like GILTI and the BEAT, are deeply flawed. (Again, don’t take my word on it, ask Kevin Brady.) And the states will be negatively impacted if the TCJA encourages MNCs to strip out even more income because the GILTI and the BEAT are ineffective. So, at a minimum, states should conform to these provisions and ideally they should improve them, but it should be remembered that improvements need not be through tinkering with the mechanics of these provisions.

The states pioneered an anti-income stripping regime that I would argue is simpler and likely more effective than even an improved GILTI and BEAT: mandatory worldwide combination using the single sales factor. This approach does not require the government to identify a particularly problematic form of income or deduction, which can have unexpected and undesired consequences. Instead, all income is income, and income is apportioned according to where an MNC makes its sales. We know that it is unlikely that an MNC makes many sales to final consumers in tax haven jurisdictions. Currently, no states require mandatory worldwide combination, but many permit taxpayers to choose it. If a state is unwilling to require worldwide combination, then an appealing option would be to conform to GILTI and the BEAT, with improvements, and then permit MNCs to choose if they would not prefer the simplicity of worldwide combination.

 

July 23, 2018

Maryland’s Generic Drug Pricing Law Is Constitutional: A Recent Decision Misunderstands The Structure Of The Industry

By Darien Shanske and Jane Horvath

[Cross-posted from Health Affairs]

Maryland’s price gouging law, a first-in-the-nation state law, would protect consumers from egregious price hikes of certain generic and off-patent brand drugs made by three or fewer manufacturers. Bills based on the Maryland template are moving through a number of other state legislatures. On April 13, 2018, a split three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled that the Maryland law, HB 631, enacted in 2017, is unconstitutional based on the court’s interpretation of case law concerning the Dormant Commerce Clause (DCC).

However, the decision is wrong for numerous reasons, many of which were very cogently explained in a lengthy dissent. The Maryland attorney general has requested an en banc review, which is when all judges in the circuit review a decision made by a single three-judge panel. With luck, the entire circuit will get it right.

We will focus here on how this decision is based on a misunderstanding of how the US drug market and supply chain operate.

The Constitutional Doctrine At Issue: Dormant Commerce Clause

The Commerce Clause of the Constitution gives the US Congress the power to regulate commerce between the states. The DCC places limits on a state’s ability to disrupt interstate commerce. The primary focus of DCC doctrine is preventing state discrimination against out-of-state businesses. A secondary concern is preventing state laws that unduly burden interstate commerce. A tertiary concern is preventing states from regulating activity occurring out-of-state—extraterritorially. (For more information about these, the DCC, and state drug cost policy, please see this white paper.)

The Maryland price gouging law (HB 631) addresses generic and off-patent brands that are on the World Health Organization list of essential medicines and manufactured by three or fewer companies. When a drug is produced by only a few manufacturers, the producers can easily launch drugs at high prices, maintain high prices, and increase prices dramatically. High prices of important essential medicines that become unaffordable leave consumers with few, if any, treatment alternatives. This deeply problematic scenario is not just imagined, as both the Government Accounting Office and the US Senate Special Committee on Aging wrote reports detailing the problem. This is the problem the Maryland law addresses.

The generic drug industry sued based on two DCC issues. The first is that the HB 631 law violates the DCC by regulating industry financial transactions outside of Maryland—that is, the charge is that Maryland is regulating extraterritorially. Second, the industry claims that the Maryland law places an “undue burden” on interstate commerce.

Note that there was no argument that the Maryland law would somehow protect the Maryland drug industry, preventing such protectionism is the core concern of the DCC. Nevertheless, the majority of the Fourth Circuit panel found that the Maryland law failed on the secondary and tertiary aspects of the DCC—undue burden and extraterritoriality, respectively. As we will now explain, the court decision seems to have not considered how the pharmaceutical market works.

The Maryland Law Does Not Impose An Undue Burden On Interstate Commerce

The majority opinion found that the Maryland law placed an undue burden on interstate commerce. In the classic cases of undue burden, a state places a heavy burden on interstate commerce of a company or industry for a trivial reason. For instance, in one case, a state required trucks to use an unusual type of mud flap when driving in the state. The Maryland law is nothing like this. First, most obviously, the law is regulating something extremely important—namely generic drug prices—when no one else is doing so, and there is clearly a consumer health and safety issue.

Second, what Maryland is asking the generic drug industry to do is nothing as burdensome as stopping their trucks at the border and making them change their mud flaps. Rather, drug prices are already a product of an enormously complicated set of financial transactions that cross geographies. These financial transactions already vary based on where the product is made and the geography into which it will be sold.

For example, drug manufacturers will negotiate discounts with specific hospitals, health systems, or health plans. Who negotiates with whom depends on the importance of the payer/purchaser in the national or regional market, the product market competition, the importance of the product to company revenue, and other factors. If the negotiation with a hospital results in an on-invoice discount, the manufacturer has to have a financial process to ensure that the wholesaler does not lose money since the wholesaler buys the product from the manufacturer and distributes it nationally or regionally to different buyers (including more local distributors that would get the product to the hospital).

So manufacturer discount negotiations at a very local level—the hospital for instance—drive multiple financial transactions in distant geographies. Manufacturer discount rebate agreements (as distinct from on-invoice discounts) with a health plan also result in financial transactions in a state other than the corporate office of the health plan. This is all part of the business model, and these are only some of the interstate financial transactions required for individual companies to compete in the market. The necessity of working directly in many markets would be particularly important for products with three or fewer competing manufacturers—these are the products subject to the Maryland law—because this is a scenario in which price competition can move market share and profits.

Thus, given the structure of the pharmaceuticals market, and particularly the market for the regulated products, the Maryland law would hardly impose a burden, much less an undue one.

The Maryland Law Does Not Regulate Extraterritorially

The Fourth Circuit also found that the Maryland law violated the extraterritoriality doctrine. This doctrine is a bit variable, but the core rule is simple: A state cannot regulate conduct in another state. Clearly, Maryland was not trying to do this but trying to secure essential drugs at a reasonable price for its citizens. It is true that in so attempting to protect its citizens, there would possibly be a small impact on current transactions wholly out of state, but if this is the test for whether a state can regulate in our interconnected economy, then states cannot regulate much of anything. And, indeed, the decision was wrong on the law of extraterritoriality for just this reason, namely that it would undermine virtually all state regulations. For more on the doctrine, see here.

But perhaps one could defend the Fourth Circuit decision by noting that an effect on interstate pricing was especially likely because of the structure of the drug industry. This analysis, though superficially appealing, has to be rejected because, once again, Maryland is not creating a new or unique effect on interstate pricing. Even in the absence of the HB 631 law, the industry responds to the various limits that different payers put on reimbursement to generic drug dispensers. For example, each and every health plan and all Medicaid programs set their own maximum allowable costs (MACs) for generics and off-patent brands. MAC is just a term for setting dispenser reimbursement limits; it is the average of the prices among the competitors. Maryland health plans and Maryland Medicaid each set their own MACs for their own set of generic products. Furthermore, these various payment limits in Maryland are different from what each health plan in Virginia and Delaware set, all of which can require manufacturers to adjust prices for any one geography through financial transactions that likely occur out of state. This is day-to-day activity in the industry, indeed, it could be very difficult to sort out any small impact of the Maryland law because it would be completely in the mix of the current interstate pricing activity in response to payer limits on pharmacy and provider drug reimbursements—limits that can change weekly or monthly at a payer’s discretion.

So, if the Fourth Circuit’s analysis were correct, then any industry with a complicated business model that crosses state lines could not be regulated by the states. Even more peculiar, if an industry were not so organized, all an industry would need to do is tie itself in knots to escape regulation by the states. It can’t be that the constitutional power of states to protect the health of its citizens diminishes because a firm’s business model produces interstate ripples whenever a state tries to regulate its actions.

In the analogous area of state taxation, it is well-established that a state cannot subject an interstate business to double taxation (relative to an instate business) on account of how the state organizes its own tax system. However, if an interstate firm suffers from double taxation because of permissible decisions made by two states individually, then that is just a necessary byproduct of living in a federation where subnational units have substantial taxing and regulatory power.

But perhaps it makes a difference that part of the complexity here is a result of federal law? If the argument is that a federal law relating to generic drug prices preempts state regulation of prices charged to its citizens, then that is indeed a serious argument. The generic drug industry did not raise this issue precisely because there is no such federal law. Therefore, the court’s finding must rest on the argument that when a federal regulatory regime that does not regulate the prices of drugs that are available in Maryland and other states (because there is no federal law regulating generic drug prices) but does indirectly create possible interstate price linkages (because of federal programs such as Medicaid), then the states are not allowed to regulate those drug prices as if the federal government had preempted state regulation directly. Stating the argument clearly is to reveal how little sense it makes and also, not coincidentally, why it is not the law. There is an entire body of law—preemption—that considers when a federal law preempts a state law, and there is a presumption against preemption. Federal courts are not supposed to be in the business of finding creative ways to prevent states from protecting their citizens.

The structure of the pharmaceuticals market is opaque, as is US Supreme Court case law about the Dormant Commerce Clause. However, knowledge of the market is absolutely key to assessing state laws relative to the DCC. We do not think their decision will stand the test of time once it is understood how this complex market actually functions. 

 

July 23, 2018

Wayfair as a Federalism Decision

By Darien Shanske

[Cross-posted from Medium]

Some first impressions, including pondering how this decision intersects with NCAA v. Murphy

In the end, not a single justice would stand up for the rule of Quill, which rule was that a state can only impose a use tax collection obligation on a vendor if it has a physical presence in the state. All the justices agreed that it was the wrong rule, even apparently, when first imposed in 1967. So then why was this a 5–4 decision?

The four dissenters argued that stare decisis should protect the Quill rule nevertheless because it is an old rule that Congress can change. I take the key part of the majority response to be the following:

While it can be conceded that Congress has the authority to change the physical presence rule, Congress cannot change the constitutional default rule. It is inconsistent with the Court’s proper role to ask Congress to address a false constitutional premise of this Court’s own creation. Courts have acted as the front line of review in this limited sphere; and hence it is important that their principles be accurate and logical, whether or not Congress can or will act in response. It is currently the Court, and not Congress, that is limiting the lawful prerogatives of the States.

This seems exactly right to me and I have argued as much (see here and here). And it is of course not surprising that Justice Kennedy is arguing that federalism values establish a pro-state power default and that it is untenable for a federal court to erect a barrier to state power based on a mistake.

But note that the dissent in Wayfair was written by Chief Justice Roberts, who, in another context wrote: “The dormant Commerce Clause is not a roving license for federal courts to decide what activities are appropriate for state and local government to undertake …” The issue in that case, United Haulers, was whether a public utility could force local users to use its services, and Chief Justice Roberts held for the majority that it could. Justice Alito wrote a powerful dissent in that case and was joined by Justice Kennedy. Justice Alito again joined Justice Kennedy in Wayfair. Thus, according to these two justices, a pro-state constitutional default does not protect local flow control ordinances, but does protect the ability of states to impose a use tax collection obligation. For Chief Justice Roberts, the reverse is apparently true, though in his case he would note that stare decisis was what weighed against the states in the use tax context. (The counter to this is that United Haulers also essentially overturned a precedent, a point well made by Justice Alito in his dissent.)

So Wayfair did hinge on federalism values, I believe, but in a quite complicated way that will require additional unpacking, especially in light of NCAA v. Murphy. This decision, authored by Justice Alito, and joined by Justices Roberts, Kennedy, Thomas, Kagan and Gorsuch, struck down a federal law that made it unlawful for states or their subdivisions to authorize betting on sporting events. The majority thought that this decision followed from the anti-commandeering principle, namely that Congress cannot “issue orders directly to the States.”

As was immediately noted, a broad interpretation of NCAA v. Murphy puts into question numerous federal laws that also restrict the kinds of laws that state legislatures can pass. Such laws are particularly numerous in the field of taxation, where Congress has imposed special rules relating to mobile phones, railroads, pensions etc. And yet both sides in Wayfair seem to agree that Congress could step in and regulate how states can impose a use tax collection obligation. But would not the relevant federal law be, in effect, a prohibition on state legislative power?

This question has been very ably debated by Daniel Hemel, Brian Galle, Rick Hills, Jeff Schmitt and Ilya Somin among others. It seems to me Wayfair is a pretty strong indication that the Court did not mean to undermine the ability of Congress to restrict state taxing power — within limits. Still, Murphy says what it says and so I will add one more way that the Court — and first courts — can reasonably limit Murphy.

In Murphy, Congress was weighing in on a contentious policy matter involving regulating individual conduct on which there is a limited federal interest. The majority in Murphy signals as much in its first line: “Americans have never been of one mind about gambling…” I think that Justices like Kennedy and Alito, relative hawks in other dormant Commerce Clause cases, would argue that preventing balkanization of the national marketplace is a very different matter from imposing a one-size fits all rule about sports betting. Protecting the national marketplace is a core concern of the Commerce Clause and indeed of our whole constitutional order, a point made particularly well by Brain Galle. I know that this kind of analysis is mushy and that the Court in Murphy instead focused on the issue of whether or not the federal government is regulating a private actor, but that rubric does not work to explain how and why Congress can act to limit state taxing power post Wayfair.

Focusing on the importance and centrality of the federal interest means, in effect, that the Court is applying a kind of proportionality analysis, a very common method of deciding constitutional cases, though not in our tradition (at least not explicitly). I think applying some form of the proportionality principle is the right answer not only to the question posed by Murphy, but also to the question posed by Quill/Wayfair. The Court in Wayfair does not explicitly shift to a kind of balancing test (in particular, Pike balancing), but its retention of a “substantial nexus” standard without much further guidance seems to invite the states to engage in balancing. Clearly, a remote vendor can now be asked to collect the use tax even without a physical presence, but, just as clearly, remote vendors can only be asked to do so if there is sufficient nexus. Thoughtful balancing of the legitimately opposing interests is therefore the way forward.

July 23, 2018

State Options After Wayfair


By Darien Shanske (with David Gamage and Adam Thimmesch)

[Cross-posted from Medium]

In Wayfair, the Supreme Court overturned the bright-line physical presence rule imposed by Quill. A state can now require an out-of-state vendor to collect the use tax even if that vendor does not have a physical presence within the state. The underlying standard governing when states can impose a use tax collection obligation remains the same: there must be a “substantial nexus.” But what constitutes a substantial nexus? The Court does not give any general guidance, but does make it clear that this standard was satisfied in this case. Alas, the Court’s reasoning as to this case is reasoning is ambiguous. Here is the key paragraph:

Here, the nexus is clearly sufficient based on both the economic and virtual contacts respondents have with the State. The Act applies only to sellers that deliver more than $100,000 of goods or services into South Dakota or engage in 200 or more separate transactions for the delivery of goods and services into the State on an annual basis. S. B. 106, §1. This quantity of business could not have occurred unless the seller availed itself of the substantial privilege of carrying on business in South Dakota. And respondents are large, national companies that undoubtedly maintain an extensive virtual presence. Thus, the substantial nexus requirement of Complete Auto is satisfied in this case.

The first sentence of this paragraph suggests that two inquiries are relevant to nexus: (1) a taxpayer’s economic returns from a state and (2) its activities directed toward a state. The second and third sentences of this paragraph suggest that the South Dakota thresholds require sufficient “economic contacts” for substantial nexus. The fourth sentence, emphasizing the size of respondents, focused on the so-called “virtual contacts” that large, national e-commerce vendors create through their extensive marketing and web presences.

What this paragraph does not do is to address precisely when small sellers have a substantial nexus. What if a small seller has exactly 200 sales, worth $20,000? Given this uncertainty, our advice for states at the moment would be to put in place thresholds similar to South Dakota’s. If they wanted to be better insulated from challenges from very small sellers, and likely at minimal revenue loss, we would suggest adopting even higher thresholds. This would be especially true for non-SSUTA states.

Alas for states looking for guidance, there is more ambiguity in the next paragraph of the opinion. The Court remanded the case to the lower courts to consider other possible challenges to the South Dakota law, including, apparently Pike balancing, which is odd considering that the substantial nexus test is a test for taxes and Pike balancing is a test for regulations. Here is the paragraph:

South Dakota’s tax system includes several features that appear designed to prevent discrimination against or undue burdens upon interstate commerce. First, the Act applies a safe harbor to those who transact only limited business in South Dakota. Second, the Act ensures that no obligation to remit the sales tax may be applied retroactively. S. B. 106, §5.Third, South Dakota is one of more than 20 States that have adopted the Streamlined Sales and Use Tax Agreement. This system standardizes taxes to reduce administrative and compliance costs: It requires a single, state level tax administration, uniform definitions of products and services, simplified tax rate structures, and other uniform rules. It also provides sellers access to sales tax administration software paid for by the State. Sellers who choose to use such software are immune from audit liability.

Though we agree that Pike balancing should apply, we wish the Court would have explained why it should apply. Furthermore, and more importantly for states, the Court does not offer any guidance as to which of these aspects of South Dakota’s law is the most important. Crucially, it may not be too difficult for a state to emulate South Dakota’s thresholds, but it might be very difficult for a state to join the SSUTA or otherwise simplify its tax system in a comparable manner.

Our advice here is that states that cannot engage in substantial simplification — and perhaps even states that can — should offer meaningful vendor reimbursement for compliance costs and/or offer free compliance software that immunizes vendors who rely upon it. (One of us discussed this first approach at length in a prior article here; and two of us discussed this second approach in a prior essay here.)

We do not think that these approaches are necessarily required by the Court’s opinion; substantial enough simplification of a state’s sales and use tax, roughly equivalent to that required by the SSUTA, should suffice. But we do think that adopting one of these approaches makes for good, sensible policy. If, for whatever reason, a state wants to retain a more complicated sales and use tax system or simply does not wish to conform their sales and use tax system with that of other states, then it is only fair that states compensate vendors for the costs they incur in collecting sales and use taxes.

January 19, 2018

States Should Tax the Over Two Trillion Dollars About to Be Deemed Repatriated (But Many Are Not Going To If They Do Not Act)

Here is the Why and the How (roughly)

By Darien Shanske

[Cross-posted from Medium.]

Under its pre-2018 international tax regime, the United States attempted to tax the income of multinational corporations on the basis of their worldwide income. To take a non-random example, the United States sought to tax Apple on its income earned all over the world. The old US international tax regime did permit multinational firms to defer payment of tax on the income they earned oversees - defer until the firm brought the money home. So, until Apple Germany sent home its profits to Apple US, those profits would not be subject to tax. Naturally, Apple and other multinationals let a lot - like over 2 trillion dollars a lot - of income hangout abroad.

One strategy, used for instance in 2004, to bring this money home to the US was to offer a special low rate. Repatriate now and pay 5.25% rather than the usual 35% rate. The tax law just passed, commonly referred to as the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), but actually having no name, applies much stronger medicine. Kind of. The TCJA deems all of this income to be repatriated and then applies a tax rate of 8% or 15.5%. The Joint Committee on Taxation estimates that this provision will raise $338 billion over ten years (see bottom of page 566 of the PDF). To return to Apple, this one company alone expects to pay $38 billion on $252 billion in repatriated earnings.

Given that there was no good reason for the tax on this income to have been deferred, this deeming provision is arguably pretty sensible. Alas, several other aspects of this part of the law make it a travesty, as so much else is in The Act with No Name. First, if this income was going to be deemed returned anyway, why not subject it to the actual rate that was avoided (35%) or at least the new very low rate (21%)? Second, this is one-time money. The Obama Administration had planned to commit the money from repatriation to infrastructure, including capitalizing an infrastructure bank. Instead, the Act with No Name uses this one time money for short-term and likely ineffectual economic stimulus.

But all is not lost. As Daniel Hemel has already explained, states should tax the deemed repatriation. The basic reason to do so is the same reason that the states should generally act to undo as much of this law as possible. It is terrible policy; it is squandering our national wealth for no discernible reason. Let's return to infrastructure. On top of the lost opportunity costs from spending this one-time money wisely, and thanks to the Act's exploding the federal debt, the federal government has only made itself less able to serve as a partner to the states in financing infrastructure. States should act to use this one-time money to do the right thing and establish their own infrastructure banks or finance other capital projects. (One other idea: states should consider using the money to start a climate science institute the way California started a stem cell science institute when the federal government dropped the ball in that area during the Bush II years.)

The states should also tax these repatriated earnings because it is efficient for them to do so. Ordinarily, states need to worry about taxpayer response. If this were another tax amnesty, then a state might worry that local firms would not repatriate their foreign earnings at all if the state imposed too high a tax. Or perhaps firms might move. But these earnings are coming home no matter what, and this year. Further, deemed repatriation is a one-time event as the United States fundamentally changes its approach to international taxation. The United States is shifting to a territorial system. The US will not even attempt to tax multinationals on their worldwide income in the future. (To use jargon, this is a rather inelastic tax base.)

States can tax this deemed repatriation, but their current tax systems are not designed to do so - or at least not well. New York just recently reported that it expected to net very little from this repatriation (see pp. 28-29). The details must await another time (or at least the appendix to this blog post), but it should not be surprising that state tax systems are not designed to effectively deal with the deemed repatriation. Consider the tax rate. The rate that states apply to the deemed repatriation should be pretty high. Again, multinationals cannot avoid repatriating this income. But state corporate income tax rates are set taking interstate competition into account. A state that usually taxes corporate income at 5% might well consider a 20% rate on the deemed repatriation appropriate - after all a 20% rate captures most of the windfall given to the corporations by the federal Act.

An even bigger issue is that states generally permit multinational corporations to choose to have only their income generated from the US subject to tax. This is called a "water's edge" election. Again, in the usual context of interstate competition, this makes sense. The law governing this election is complex and differs between states. Suffice it to say that these laws in many cases will permit multinational corporations to avoid paying state corporate income tax on much of their repatriated earnings.

So states should pass new laws that explicitly cope with this situation. (I get into the weeds of what this law might look like in the appendix.)

But can states do this? The answer, I believe, is yes - but with an explanation. States cannot reach out and tax extraterritorial value, but states can tax an apportioned share of the business income of a multinational corporation. They can also tax the non-business income of a corporation at the place of commercial domicile. What does this mean? Take Apple and California. California can say that it is going to tax Apple on its worldwide income, but subject to a reasonable formula that apportions that income to California. Only income generated by Apple as a unitary business can be apportioned. Income earned by Apple in some other way, say as investment income, can be taxed by a business' commercial domicile. In this case, this would also be California.

Apportionment is generally done by a formula. States will typically choose an apportionment formula appropriate to their competitive position. A market state like California apportions the income of multi-state corporations on the basis of sales. A big resource state like Montana only uses the location of sales for 1/3 of its formula, but also uses the location of property and payroll. But in the context of this one time deemed repatriation provision, states need not be overly concerned with choosing a competitive formula. Thus an apt formula might be: The income from the deemed repatriation should be apportioned on the basis of historical sales or property and payroll or state population, which ever is higher.

(As a backstop, the law might provide that any income found not to be apportionable is still subject to allocation.)

But can the rate on this repatriated income be higher than for other corporate income? I think there are good arguments that it can be. After all, states often have different rates for different kinds of income and even different kinds of businesses. See, for example, here and here. And this is leaving to the side the different effective rates that corporations pay based on any credits they might receive - or any penalties that might be imposed. If states can and do have higher taxes on less mobile businesses, on financial businesses and can impose significant penalties, then it seems that a state can also impose a higher rate on this repatriated income, which is a kind of like an immobile windfall, kind of like a financial asset and, though accumulating this revenue was not illegal, the extremes of deferral that some firms went to can be viewed as a kind of behavior that a state could reasonably want to discourage by applying a rate higher than would have been applied if the income had been brought back earlier.

To sum up, states should impose a special tax on the deemed repatriation at a high rate with a favorable apportionment formula. There will be litigation, of course, but I think the states will win.

Appendix

A first cut at some in the weeds issues. First, one should remember that in a case challenging state taxes in this context, the burden is heavily on the taxpayer. This might turn out to be very important.

Second, one might wonder if states really can change their tax systems to reach this income. Interconnected corporations often dividend income to one another and, when they do, the receiving corporation is often entitled to a "dividends received deduction" on the theory that the corporation sending the income has already been subject to tax. One might think the situation is different when the dividend is coming from abroad, and the matter is tricky, but in at least most cases the Supreme Court has held that domestic and foreign dividends must get similar treatment. Thus, if this repatriation is just a big dividend, then states probably cannot subject it to a special rate. But, unlike in 2004, the deemed repatriation is not categorized by the federal law as a "dividend." Rather, the deemed repatriation is another type of income that multinational corporations can create - "Subpart F Income." Don't ask what that is, but do note that it is not a dividend. Many - perhaps most (feel free to email me with information on this)- states do not tax Subpart F income either, as is the case in NY, but the states could and without violating the equal treatment of dividends rule. For a model of what this could look like, look no farther than California's special rule for the taxation of Subpart F income. (See in particular Cal. Rev. and Tax Code Sec. 25110(a)(2)(A)(ii)). Yes, this is obscure stuff. At least one analysis by a consultant to the California Senate Committee on Governance and Finance seems to agree with my take. This is the analysis of SB-337 (Bates)). California's approach is still far from optimal, but it seems to be the very least that states should do.

 

December 8, 2017

I attempt a principled defense of the House approach to SALT repeal

(Spoiler Alert: I fail)

By Darien Shanske

[Cross-posted from Medium.]

The tax reform plan that just passed the House of Representatives repeals the SALT deduction, except for $10,000 in property taxes. The Senate plan would repeal the deduction outright, though there appears to be a chance that the final Senate bill will move closer to the House position. Numerous commentators have weighed in on both plans and, in general, the consensus is that neither plan is very well conceived. There are at least three main lines of criticism, all of which I largely agree with. First, per Daniel Hemel (and many others), on basic income tax principles there is a sound argument that some portion of the deduction should be maintained for individuals because these taxes do not pay for personal consumption, and so the Senate plan simply fails on that ground. There is also a good argument that the deduction is justified for businesses, though note that retaining the deduction for businesses but eliminating it for individuals leads to incentives for individuals to take the SALT deduction at the business level. Perhaps, as David Kamin explains, this problem has now been addressed, though, as he also notes, the current legislation does not take into account numerous possible responses by the states to eliminating the individual deduction.

Second, as to which set of taxes - state or local - have the better claim to be retained as a deduction on income tax principle, the better argument is for state income taxes and not property taxes, which are typically local. This is because, as Gladriel Shobe has argued here and here, there is a stronger argument that local property taxes are prices paid to consume local amenities rather than state level taxes. The House proposal therefore gets matters backwards from an income tax principle (and distributive) perspective.

A third important critique is to note that eliminating the deduction, when combined with other aspects of the Republican plans, amounts to a tax increase specifically targeted to certain parts of the country. This is just not good for our polity.

But can anything positive be said about this? I can almost make an argument in favor of the House approach as to the property tax. That I can't in the end illustrates, in yet another way, the incoherence and meanness of these proposals. Back in 2012, I argued that there was a good argument for the federal government to repeal the SALT deduction except for the property tax component. My argument was not based on income tax principles, but on the proper role of the central government in a federation. One of those roles is maintaining stability and generally optimizing the revenue system of all of the component governments. It is axiomatic that the property tax is a relatively efficient tax that should be assigned to local governments to finance local public goods. The forty years since California's Proposition 13 has also made it clear that states and localities were reducing their reliance on the property tax - in part because of the liquidity problems commonly associated with the tax. There was therefore, I thought, a good argument that the federal government should intervene to make the property tax relatively cheaper so as to nudge its continued - or even increased - use.

The current House proposal bears some resemblance to what I had in mind and yet I still think the House proposal is not a good idea. Why? For one thing, from the perspective of 2017 I realize that my argument missed at least two big points. First, my underlying assumption was that the federal government would be continuing to carry out another of its key roles - redistribution. Eliminating the SALT deduction in order, in part, to pay for the ACA, or at least prevent cuts to the ACA and other social insurance programs, seemed reasonable distribution-wise in 2012. Indeed, I argued that encouraging the use of the relatively stable property tax actually benefits the less well-off precisely because, as David Gamage has shown, they are the ones most likely to suffer from sharp state and local budget cuts during a recession.

By contrast, in the current context, the proposal is to eliminate or reduce the SALT deduction as part of a spectacularly regressive tax reform proposal that is part of a still broader attempt to sharply reduce the role of the federal government in taking care of the less fortunate. Making it more difficult for the states to care of the very people that the federal government is abandoning - or trying to abandon through, for instance, dismantling the ACA - is deeply wrong. (If we were in the midst of a deep recession, then there would be an independent argument for a fiscal stimulus, but this is not the case.)

In 2012, I also underestimated state resilience (not everyone did). Back then it seemed that California, for example, would not, as a matter of politics, increase its state-level income and sales taxes and, even it could, I didn't think enough could be raised to right the ship. But California did raise its income tax twice, and in a progressive way, and the state currently has built up a significant rainy day fund. Without doubt, California still has fiscal challenges and it would be much better for the state to rely more on the property tax, but I was wrong to think that this was the only way forward. In short, I overestimated the problem to which my proposal was a solution.

In any event, if the House plan were serious about reviving the property tax on fiscal federalism grounds, it would not proceed by means of preserving the deduction in the way that it does, especially in the context of a plan that also doubles the standard deduction. As an itemized deduction that is only worth anything beyond the new larger standard deduction, there is unlikely to be much shift in state or local political economy under the House plan. A way to achieve such a shift would be to make a portion of the property tax an above-the-line deduction, as it was briefly in 2008-09. Though still problematic for the reasons noted at the outset, that would at least represent a coherent - and less regressive - choice to advance a policy goal through advantaging the property tax. Needless to say, I do not expect this to happen.

 

December 8, 2017

Another way states can counter a partial repeal of the SALT deduction

(This expedient could possibly even improve state public finance in the long term.)

By Darien Shanske

[Cross-posted from Medium.]

There have been numerous important discussions of how states might respond to the repeal of the SALT deduction. David Kamin lists some of them here; he also notes that these possible (likely?) responses should be taken into account by the JCT because they will reduce the revenue gains that the federal government is expecting.

I should like to sketch out one additional state response. Suppose the House approach to the SALT deduction were to become law. This means that the deduction would be eliminated except for $10,000 in property taxes. A certain group of taxpayers will now find themselves with less than $10,000 in property taxes to deduct, but lots of state income taxes that they can no longer deduct. To be specific, suppose a taxpayer has $5,000 in property taxes that they can still deduct, but $8,000 in income taxes that they cannot. If $5,000 of the income tax liability could be shifted into the property tax then the taxpayer (and the state) would not be leaving a deduction on the table. This could be done, of course, just by increasing property taxes and reducing income taxes. As it turns out, even if increasing property taxes is on balance a good idea, it is one that is highly fraught politically and has big implications for state-local relations. Also, as the current experience with drive-by tax reform is continually illustrating, major changes to tax systems should not be done quickly. See here for some of the issues raised by a shift to property taxes.

But a state with an income tax need not engage in a prolonged debate about increasing its property tax in order to maximize the value of the SALT deduction for its citizens. In broad strokes, all a state needs to do is formally increase its property taxes so that citizens can get the maximum deduction, but then in effect hold taxpayers harmless by means of the state's income tax.

Here is what this might look like a little more specifically. The state can authorize its localities to impose a special property tax supplement up to $10,000 so as to assure all taxpayers maximize their SALT deduction (if they end up itemizing). Next, the state creates a generous property tax circuit breaker in its income tax. The circuit breaker could work like this: to the extent the property tax burden as a percentage of a taxpayer's income is greater than it was in 2017 - and that increase is a result of a special supplemental property tax - then that additional property tax is forgiven. To be sure, there would be many details to work out (such as coordinating the timing of local property tax collection with the state income tax), but I think the mechanism is sound. An additional refinement could be to make certain that some small portion of the new property tax is in fact collected by the locality so that the whole structure is respected.

I should add that I believe that states (really localities) should increase their use of the property tax in general and that generous circuit breakers are an important way to make this possible. See my argument here. One would hope that the fact that this self-help proposal for the states is also a reasonable idea on its own would make it more attractive.

 

November 30, 2017

Some Thoughts on California's Fiscal Constitution

by Darien Shanske

[Cross-posted from SCOCAblog.]

The California Supreme Court currently has at least two cases relating to California's fiscal constitution on its current docket;[1] two were decided this summer.[2] The phrase "fiscal constitution" is a term of art that designates all the many provisions of the constitution that dictate how governments can raise and spend money. The fiscal constitution of the federal government is very sparse. The fiscal constitution of the state of California is enormously lengthy and complicated. Many of its provisions date to 1879 and are contained in the thirty-six sections of Article XIII, but also see the twenty-three sections of Article XVI. Proposition 13-the proposition that limited property taxes and made numerous other changes-added Article XIIIA. Proposition 4, passed in 1979 in order to advance the "spirit of Proposition 13," added Article XIIIB. Proposition 218, passed by the voters in 1996 and also seeking to backstop Prop 13, added Articles XIIIC and XIIID. Proposition 26, passed by the voters in 2010, and also meant to backstop Proposition 13, amended Articles XIIIA and XIIIC.

Given the volume, complexity and relative recentness of some of these propositions, it is certain that the California Supreme Court will grapple with many more cases involving California's fiscal constitution. These cases are enormously consequential, as they directly implicate how California and its local governments can fund not only basic governmental services, but also price the use of natural resources, such as water. Despite the importance of the topic, there has not been much scholarly attention devoted to how to interpret state fiscal constitutions (and, yes, other states do have law similar to those in California, though none so far as I know has a set of overlapping laws quite so challenging). A lot has been written about whether the provisions are wise policy and/or achieve their goals, but these valuable normative and empirical discussions are of little use when it comes to giving direction to courts grappling with what the provisions before them mean.

This neglect would perhaps be justified if there were no broader perspective to be taken on these provisions. It could be that each court in each state is on its own to do the best job it can given using a combination of the usual exegetical tools-some mixture of text, history, and purpose. In an article forthcoming in the Rutgers University Law Review, I argue that such an ad hoc approach is not justified.[3] In the rest of this post, I will briefly summarize my argument and add some specific reasons why California's fiscal constitution should be approached in the manner I sketch out.

The specific issue I consider is the distinction between taxes and fees. The fiscal constitutions of California, like that of many states, limit the ability of governments to raise taxes. These same constitutions typically do not impose similar limits on the ability of governments to impose a fee, say a building permit fee. But what if a locality chose to levy a gigantic building permit fee and used the proceeds to fund general services? Such a fee would-and should-be considered a "hidden tax" and thus subject to the same limitations as ordinary taxes.

But how high is too high when it comes to fees? In many cases-say fees for water use-the fees must be set high enough to fund major capital expenditures or there will not be a water system to provide water. And do we think higher fees for excessive use of water should be construed to be a constitutional problem? This seems indicated by these provisions because the marginal cost of the additional water is no higher for an excessive user. Yet if tiered pricing meant to encourage conservation is a problem, then there might not be any water left in the water system. What about basic service for poorer users at a discount; does not the provision of such a service mean that other ratepayers are paying too much? But if poorer users would not use the service at all if charged market rates, why might it not be perfectly rational to charge them less if the marginal cost of the additional services was very low? Do we think that airplane passengers who pay full price are subsidizing a customer who pays less for an empty seat on a plane that is about to leave?

Courts are not well situated to answer these questions, but in some states[4]-not yet California[5]-the courts seem to have taken the position that the constitutional distinction between taxes and fees leaves them no choice but to undertake searching substantive review of the fees set by state and local governments. But there is another-better-way, namely for courts primarily to engage in procedural review of the ratemaking process. Such review has real teeth and is well within judicial competence. Most importantly, as I argue, requiring such review is actually a better interpretation of these fiscal provisions.

In general, procedural review is a better interpretation of the provisions of state fiscal constitutions because such review was the norm of the preexisting common law of public finance. In fact, modern administrative law, with its emphasis on procedural review, largely grew out of a critical response to the U.S. Supreme Court's undertaking substantive review of rates set by an expert agency.

Courts properly presume that preexisting common law was known to the proponents of a proposition; courts also presume that terms that had a meaning under the preexisting common law retain that meaning when they become codified unless there is some explicit evidence to the contrary. These presumptions-canons-are proper because assuming knowledge of the preexisting law is consistent with the rule of law value of predictability.

California's fiscal constitution is particularly amenable to a procedural interpretation for several reasons. First, the California courts regularly apply the relevant canons of interpretation, such as that proponents are presumed to have knowledge of the law.[6] Second, the key provisions of California's fiscal constitution explicitly embrace whole phrases of the preexisting common law.[7] Third, California's fiscal constitution manifests a great deal of explicit concern with following proper procedures.[8] This includes shifting the burden of proof to the government.[9]

To be sure, it could be that California's fiscal constitution imposes lengthy procedures, a burden shift, and heightened substantive review. But there is no explicit evidence of such and thus I argue that the application of appropriate canons and analytic superiority should move the court to a procedural interpretation.

As the cases come down, I plan to check back in and offer some assessments of where we are and where we might go.

[1] City of San Buenaventura v. United Water Conservation Dist., (2015)185 Cal. Rptr. 3d 207, review granted and opinion superseded June 24, 2015; Citizens for Fair REU Rates v. City of Redding, (2015) 233 Cal. App. 4th 402, review granted and opinion superseded Apr. 29, 2015.

[2] California Cannabis Coalition v. City of Upland, (2017) 3 Cal. 5th 924; Jacks v. City of Santa Barbara, (2017) 3 Cal. 5th 248.

[3] Shanske, Darien, Interpreting State Fiscal Constitutions: A Modest Proposal (June 19, 2017). Rutgers L. Rev., forthcoming. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2989313.

[4] Yes I am looking at you Michigan and Missouri. See Zweig v. Metro. St. Louis Sewer Dist., (2013) 412 S.W.3d 223; Bolt v. City of Lansing, (1998) 587 N.W.2d 264.

[5] More or less. See Silicon Valley Taxpayers Ass'n, Inc. v. Santa Clara Cty. Open Space Auth., (2008) 187 P.3d 37 (imposing a de novo standard of review).

[6] In re Harris, (1989) 775 P.2d 1057, 1060 (en banc) ("[T]he voters who enact [an initiative] may be deemed to be aware of the judicial construction of the law that served as its source.").

[7] See the emphasis on "reasonableness" in Cal. Const. art. XIIIC § 1(e).

[8] See e.g., Cal. Const., art. XIIID, § 6.

[9] See, e.g., Cal. Const., art. XIIIC, § 1(e) (flush language).

 

October 16, 2017

Opinion Analysis: California Cannabis Coalition v. City of Upland

By David A. Carrillo & Darien Shanske

[Cross-posted from SCOCAblog]

This is a preview of a forthcoming article, California Constitutional Law: Interpreting Restrictions on the Initiative Power (2017) 51 U.C. Davis L. Rev. Online 65, David A. Carrillo and Darien Shanske. Reprinted by permission.

Overview

On August 28, 2017 the California Supreme Court decided California Cannabis Coal. v. City of Upland, (Aug. 28, 2017, S234148) ___Cal.4th___ . Justice Cuéllar wrote the opinion, joined by the Chief Justice and Justices Werdegar, Chin, and Corrigan. Justice Kruger wrote separately to concur in part and dissent in part; Justice Liu joined that opinion.

The basic facts of the case are these.[1] A local initiative in the city of Upland proposed to require marijuana dispensaries pay a city fee. The proponents wanted the initiative to be considered by voters at a special election. The city concluded that because the fee would exceed the actual costs, it constituted a general tax. To the city, this meant that the initiative could not be voted on during a special election; instead, under California constitution Article XIII C, section 2 the measure had to be submitted to the voters at the next general election. This provision of the constitution clearly requires that all (general) tax increases imposed by a local government be submitted to the voters at a general election.[2] So if a city council (like Upland’s) proposes a tax increase, then it must follow the Proposition 218 rule and wait for the next general election. The question posed by this case was whether this rule also applies to general tax measures put on the ballot by the voters. The court decided that this provision does not restrain voter initiatives. Therefore, if the voters propose the increase of a general tax, then a vote on the tax can occur at a special election.

Analysis

Debating the definition of “government” is unproductive.

The key question confronting the court was whether the phrase “no local government may impose . . .” also served to impose a limit on the voters of a local government acting through the initiative process. The majority thought that this phrase did not include the electorate; the dissent thought that it did. Though both sides made reasonable points, we think that the arguments based on the language of the provision are so evenly balanced that the heavy lifting is done by the majority’s presumption in favor of liberally construing the initiative power. The majority candidly says as much.[3] Indeed, the majority explains that when it comes to limiting the electorate’s initiative power, it will apply a “clear statement rule.” That is, unless the voters clearly intend to limit the initiative power, the court will not find that they did.

There is a strong case for this clear statement rule.

The dissent cogently asks what the majority’s basis is for applying a clear statement rule and making it a rule for future cases.[4] After all, a judicially crafted clear statement rule hamstrings a legislative body and hands power to judges to decide what is “clear enough.” A clear statement rule is particularly troublesome to the extent the drafters of legislation did not know their work would be evaluated on that standard.

The majority’s response is that a presumption in favor of the initiative power is not new. In 1991 the court applied that principle in a case involving Article XIII A, section 3 (added by Proposition 13), which at the time provided that “any changes in State taxes enacted for the purpose of increasing revenues . . . must be imposed by an Act passed by not less than two-thirds of all members elected to each of the two houses of the Legislature . . . .”[5] The court applied the presumption and found it did not apply to the electorate.

Only five years later, Proposition 218 aimed to clarify the interpretation of another section in the same article: Article XIII A, section 4 (added by Proposition 13), which reads: “Cities, Counties and special districts, by a two-thirds vote of the qualified electors of such district, may impose special taxes on such district, except ad valorem taxes on real property or a transaction tax or sales tax on the sale of real property within such City, County or special district.” It should be unsurprising that the court again applied the presumption in favor of the initiative in interpreting Proposition 218’s clarification of Article XIII A, section 4. In this context it is especially apt to charge the proponents[6] with knowledge of the law,[7] including knowledge of this presumption.

But this argument only goes so far if a presumption in favor of the initiative power is misguided. Consider the U.S. Supreme Court’s widely-criticized federal preemption clear statement rule. That rule is a restriction on federal power, imposed on federalism grounds. If Congress does not clearly preempt a state law, then the state law stands. Yet there is a good argument that after the Fourteenth Amendment’s adoption there is no good ground for tipping the scale in favor of state versus federal power. Another criticism is that federalism values, appealing as they are, should not receive special judicial solace at the cost of protecting individual rights, as often ends up being the case.[8] The fact that the federal clear statement rule is long established and fairly applied is no response to such points.

We considered whether a deeper justification exists for a presumption in favor of broadly construing the initiative power as a matter of California constitutional law. We think there is such an argument, as follows.

An initiative constitutional amendment that purported to prevent future electorates from undoing a past act, or otherwise placed substantive limits on the future electorate’s legislative power, would be invalid as a revision. The California electorate’s initiative power is a structural part of the state’s constitutional system. California’s constitution can be changed, of course, but structural changes are labeled “revisions” and revisions cannot be accomplished by means of the ordinary voter initiative. A revision requires a supermajority of the legislature and a majority vote of the electorate.[9] Consider also the fact that the initiative was created via the revision process. How the initiative power got into the constitution is not determinative, but it is suggestive.[10] If altering the state government to add the initiative was a revision, and if the litmus test for a revision is whether it changes the nature of the state government, then reducing or removing the initiative power is also a revision. As an extreme example, if the electorate by initiative constitutional amendment attempted to assume all taxing power, or claimed to renounce any taxing power, either act would be an invalid revision.

Thus, if Proposition 218 significantly impairs the electorate’s right of initiative, then it should be invalid to that extent because the initiative can only be substantively curtailed by a revision. The court has justified this rule on the principle that, although the state constitution is binding on future legislatures and electorates alike, the electorate cannot restrict its own future initiative power through the initiative process.[11] Only the legislature plus the electorate could do that with a revision.[12]

An initiative constitutional amendment that purports to prevent future electorates from undoing a past act, or otherwise placed substantive limits on the future electorate’s legislative power, would also be invalid as a separation of powers violation. Using the example above again, if the electorate by initiative constitutional amendment attempted to assume all taxing power, or claimed to forfeit any taxing power, either act would violate the separation of powers because the initiative is a core electorate legislative power, which cannot be substantively limited or reassigned.[13] The electorate cannot self-harm, just as the legislature cannot over-delegate, reduce, or give away its core powers.[14]

How does one know if a change is structural enough to become a revision, or a material enough impairment? Key questions include: Does it change the frame of government?[15] Does it substantively reduce the electorate’s legislative power?[16] Obviously the electorate (by initiative constitutional amendment) can prescribe substantive and procedural limits on the other branches of California government.[17] But the present electorate cannot by initiative constitutional amendment reduce the amount of legislative power held by the future electorate. This does not mean that the initiative cannot be used to constrain future initiative acts at all. Proposition 13 itself is an example of setting limits on future electorates, and absent any other action the future electorate is indeed constrained by the past electorate’s action. Yet the future state electorate can always use its initiative power to undo the past electorate’s act and change the rules.

Remember that the provision in question here is a restriction placed on the local initiative power by the state electorate. The dissent argued that this fact indicates that Kennedy Wholesale was not really about protecting the initiative power because the state voters could always change the provision.[18] Leaving to one side whether this is the best reading of Kennedy Wholesale (and the majority has a potent counter), we think that this point makes the argument for applying the clear statement rule stronger in this case. As to the state electorate, their initiative power would arguably not have been overly restricted by a two-thirds rule because a majority of the electorate could change the rule. But that is not the case for the local electorate and the local initiative power. The local initiative power is also constitutionally derived.[19] Based on the argument above, it is not at all clear to us if the state electorate could constrain the use of local initiative power absent a constitutional revision. It is at least a very difficult constitutional question. Consequently, it is certainly sensible to apply a clear statement rule to avoid that question. In this context, the clear statement rule functions more like a canon of constitutional avoidance.

We should be clear that the majority opinion did not rely on the argument we just outlined in its defense of the clear statement rule, although we believe that it did gesture to it at various points in its opinion, most particularly when the court explained that: “As Ulysses once tied himself to the mast so he could resist the Sirens’ tempting song (Homer, The Odyssey, Book XII), voters too can conceivably make the clear and important choice to bind themselves by making it more difficult to enact initiatives in the future.[20] We added the italics to the “conceivably,” and we think this comment shows that the court sees that self-binding in this way poses a hard question.

The Elephant in the Room

This case is about California constitution Article XIII C, section 2(b). The celebrity of the case has to do with section 2(d), which reads: “No local government may impose, extend, or increase any special tax unless and until that tax is submitted to the electorate and approved by a two-thirds vote. A special tax shall not be deemed to have been increased if it is imposed at a rate not higher than the maximum rate so approved.”

The language concerning the election rules construed in this decision (“No local government may impose, extend, or increase any general tax unless . . .”) is identical to the language concerning the required supermajority for special tax measures (“No local government may impose, extend, or increase any special tax unless…”). This strongly suggests that the local voters can, by initiative, increase special taxes by a simple majority because the supermajority limitation does not apply to initiatives any more than the general election requirement applies to initiatives.

The majority does not comment on this implication, which is appropriate, as that issue was not before the court. Perhaps some grounds for distinction between the two provisions might be found. Indeed, there is language in the majority opinion that suggests it thinks there might be such a distinction. The court says:

That the voters explicitly imposed a procedural two-thirds vote requirement on themselves in article XIII C, section 2, subdivision (d) is evidence that they did not implicitly impose a procedural timing requirement in subdivision (b).[21]

This language can be read to suggest that there is some difference between the election timing provision and the vote threshold provision. We do not actually think that this is what this passage means. Instead, it is part of an argument in favor of the majority’s interpretation of section 2(b) and the (minor) point the majority is making is that the electorate knows how to refer to itself.[22]

Nevertheless, the implication remains and was brought up by the dissent in a footnote:

The majority opinion contains language that could be read to suggest that article XIII C, section 2(d) should be interpreted differently from section 2(b). (See maj. opn., ante, ––– Cal.Rptr.3d at ––––, ––– P.3d at –––– [noting that the enactors of Prop. 218 “explicitly imposed a procedural . . . requirement on themselves in” art. XIII C, § 2(d), which “is evidence that they did not implicitly” do so in § 2(b) ].) I see no basis for construing the two provisions differently. Sections 2(b) and 2(d) are, in all pertinent respects, indistinguishable.[23]

If we are correct that the majority did not wish to introduce a difficult-to-understand distinction in this offhand way, then why did the majority not change the language or in some other way respond to the dissent? Perhaps the majority thought its implication was clear enough and that there had to be some end to the back and forth. Perhaps the majority was not displeased with the implication the tax threshold question was arguably open for the lower courts to consider.

Implications

The public response to this decision—both pro and con—suggests that it changes the possibilities of local government finance significantly.[24] Again, the focus has been on the decision’s supposed impact on the voting threshold for special taxes. We are skeptical that the impact would be so great even if this decision does ultimately result in the supermajority rule not applying to special taxes placed on the ballot by the voters themselves.

As a matter of political economy, we do not think there is a reservoir of pent up demand for tax measures. As noted in the post previewing this case, cities and counties can already subject general taxes to a majority vote[25]—along with a non-binding advisory measure on how any revenue collected is to be spent.[26] Thus, it is not clear how important this change will be for cities and counties. School districts, for example, have already been able to fund infrastructure with a 55% voter threshold, assuming certain conditions are met.[27] So we would predict that operational school district taxes passed by majority vote will be the main source of demand for this kind of voter initiative, if it were to be possible.

Even assuming that the court’s reasoning means that the two-thirds threshold does not apply to local special tax initiatives, how this area of the law develops from here is unclear. The initiative power extends to taxation,[28] but it is also the case that the initiative power is generally interpreted to be as broad as the legislative power of the underlying local government.[29] Charter cities have the inherent power to tax and therefore, presumably, their citizens have that right as well.[30] But general law cities and counties do not have the inherent power to tax.[31] Does that mean the legislature must explicitly permit local tax initiatives in these governments?[32] School districts have no initiative power at all—at least not granted by the constitution.[33] Thus, if school districts wanted to use this ruling, must the legislature grant the school district electorates the power to impose taxes by initiative? These are hard questions.[34] We note them here not to answer them, but to indicate that many thorny legal and political questions remain whatever this decision’s applicability to the tax threshold provision.

Conclusion

The majority describes the conflict in this case as between two constitutional provisions: sections 8 and 11 of article II (the initiative power), and article XIII C (limiting local governments’ ability to impose, extend, or increase general taxes). Because the latter provision was created by the former, we think that the court found that this is not a clash of two equally-matched California constitutional doctrines. Thus, in keeping with its past practice and sound doctrinal considerations, the electorate’s initiative power prevailed.

[1] For further description of the case see: http://scocablog.com/argument-preview-california-cannabis-coalition-et-al-v-city-of-upland/.

[2] Cal. Const., art. XIIIC § 2:

(b) No local government may impose, extend, or increase any general tax unless and until that tax is submitted to the electorate and approved by a majority vote. A general tax shall not be deemed to have been increased if it is imposed at a rate not higher than the maximum rate so approved. The election required by this subdivision shall be consolidated with a regularly scheduled general election for members of the governing body of the local government, except in cases of emergency declared by a unanimous vote of the governing body.

(c) Any general tax imposed, extended, or increased, without voter approval, by any local government on or after January 1, 1995, and prior to the effective date of this article, shall continue to be imposed only if approved by a majority vote of the voters voting in an election on the issue of the imposition, which election shall be held within two years of the effective date of this article and in compliance with subdivision (b).

(d) No local government may impose, extend, or increase any special tax unless and until that tax is submitted to the electorate and approved by a two-thirds vote. A special tax shall not be deemed to have been increased if it is imposed at a rate not higher than the maximum rate so approved.

[3] California Cannabis Coal. v. City of Upland, 2017 WL 3706533 at *12: “Our analysis in those decisions consistently begins with the presumption that the initiative power is not constrained, then searches for clear evidence suggesting that electors could reasonably be understood to have imposed restrictions upon their constitutional power.”

[4] California Cannabis Coal. v. City of Upland, 2017 WL 3706533 at *18.

[5] Kennedy Wholesale, Inc. v. State Bd. of Equalization, (1991) 806 P.2d 1360.

[6] The Howard Jarvis Taxpayer’s Association sponsored both Propositions 13 and 218. https://www.hjta.org/about-hjta/the-history-of-hjta/.

[7] See, e.g., In re Harris, (Cal. 1989) 775 P.2d 1057, 1060 (“[T]he voters who enact [an initiative] may be deemed to be aware of the judicial construction of the law that served as its source.”).

[8] See, e.g., Eskridge & Frickey, Quasi-Constitutional Law: Clear Statement Rules As

Constitutional Lawmaking, (1992) 45 Vand. L. Rev. 593, 643-44.

[9] Or a constitutional convention. Cal. Const. art. XVIII, § 2.

[10] See Amador Valley Joint Union High Sch. Dist. v. State Bd. of Equalization, (Cal. 1978) 583 P.2d 1281, 1285 (“We think it significant that prior to 1962 a constitutional revision could be accomplished Only by the elaborate procedure of the convening of, and action by, a constitutional convention (art. XVIII, s 2). This fact suggests that the term ‘revision’ in section XVIII originally was intended to refer to a substantial alteration of the entire Constitution, rather than to a less extensive change in one or more of its provisions.”).

[11] Rossi v. Brown, (Cal. 1995) 889 P.2d 557, 574. (“[T]hrough exercise of the initiative power the people may bind future legislative bodies other than the people themselves”). See also Cty. of Los Angeles v. State, (Cal. 1987) 729 P.2d 202, 209 n.9 (“Whether a constitutional provision which requires a supermajority vote to enact substantive legislation, as opposed to funding the program, may be validly enacted as a Constitutional amendment rather than through revision of the Constitution is an open question.”).

[12] Cal. Const., art. XVIII, § 1, 4; 68 Hastings L. J. 731, 744.

[13] Amador Valley Joint Union High Sch. Dist., (Cal. 1978) 583 P.2d 1281, 1286 (posing as a hypothetical example of an invalid revision an initiative constitutional amendment vesting all judicial power in legislature). For an explanation of the idea that a separation of powers analysis applies to electorate legislative acts, See Carrillo, Duvernay, & Stracener, California Constitutional Law: Popular Sovereignty (2017) 68 Hastings L. J. 731.

[14] For background on the unique features of the California separation of powers doctrine, See Carrillo & Chou, California Constitutional Law: Separation of Powers (2011) 45 USF.L.Rev. 655.

[15] Professional Engineers in California Government v. Kempton, (Cal. 2007) 155 P.3d 226, 245; Amador Valley Joint Union High Sch. Dist., 583 P.2d at 1286 (does the measure “accomplish such far reaching changes in the nature of our basic governmental plan as to amount to a revision”).

[16] 68 Hastings L. J. 731, 745–46.

[17] Rossi, 889 P.2d at 574; 68 Hastings L. J. 731, 744 and 753.

[18] California Cannabis Coal. v. City of Upland, 2017 WL 3706533 at *19.

[19] Cal. Const, art. II, § 11(a): “Initiative and referendum powers may be exercised by the electors of each city or county under procedures that the Legislature shall provide. Except as provided in subdivisions (b) and (c), this section does not affect a city having a charter.”

[20] California Cannabis Coal. v. City of Upland, 2017 WL 3706533 at *1.

[21] California Cannabis Coal. v. City of Upland, 2017 WL 3706533 at *10.

[22] The opening sentence of the paragraph says as much: “Indeed, as we observed in Kennedy Wholesale, 53 Cal.3d at page 252, 279 Cal.Rptr. 325, 806 P.2d 1360, when an initiative’s intended purpose includes imposing requirements on voters, evidence of such a purpose is clear.”

[23] California Cannabis Coal. v. City of Upland, 2017 WL 3706533 at *18 n.7.

[24] See, e.g., https://calmatters.org/articles/california-taxes-two-step/ (“The ruling ‘isn’t just a small crack in the protections that voters across the state have relied on—it is a sledgehammer,’ said [Assembly Member] Baker at a press conference.”). And, in fact, Republican members of the Assembly have introduced a constitutional amendment (ACA 19) to overturn the holding of this case. http://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billTextClient.xhtml?bill_id=201720180ACA19.

[25] Cal. Const. art. XIIIA, § 2(b).

[26] Coleman v. County of Santa Clara, (1998) 64 Cal.App.4th 662.

[27] Cal. Const. art. XIIIA, § 1(b)(3).

[28] Rossi, 889 P.2d at 563.

[29] DeVita v. Cty. of Napa, (1995) 9 Cal.4th 763, 775.

[30] California Fed. Savings & Loan Assn. v. Los Angeles, (1991) 54 Cal.3d 1.

[31] Santa Clara County Local Transportation Authority v. Guardino, (1995) 11 Cal.4th 220, 247-48.

[32] Before one assumes the answer is yes, it must be remembered that, as the majority in this case explained, “we have held that the people’s power to propose and adopt initiatives is at least as broad as the legislative power wielded by the Legislature and local governments.” California Cannabis Coal. v. City of Upland, 2017 WL 3706533 at *4 (citing cases). If the initiative power is broader, then perhaps explicit permission to place a tax measure on the ballot by initiative is not necessary.

[33] But, again, perhaps the power of initiative is so broad that this power could be found to have been reserved by the people it being explicitly granted to the electorate of a school district.

[34] Another twist. Proposition 62, approved by the voters in 1986, placed limits on local government taxing power very similar to that of Proposition 218 into California statutory law. See, e.g., Cal. Gov’t Code § 53722 (“No local government or district may impose any special tax unless and until such special tax is submitted to the electorate of the local government, or district and approved by a two-thirds vote of the voters voting in an election on the issue.”). The Legislature cannot simply repeal a statute passed by initiative. See Cal Const. art. II, § 10(c); Cal. Gov’t Code § 53729. Presumably Proposition 62 does not bar local tax initiatives any more than Proposition 218 does, but this is another issue that will need to be litigated.