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Senate Tax Writers Introduce Bipartisan Digital Goods Bill

Top Senate tax writers have introduced a bipartisan bill to prevent duplicative taxation on digital goods and services. The bill aims to establish a framework across multiple jurisdictions for taxation of digital goods and services, including electronic music, literature, and mobile apps, among other things.

The Digital Goods and Services Tax Fairness Act (Sen. 3581) was reintroduced on October 11 by Senate Finance Committee (SFC) ranking member Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and SFC member John Thune, R-S.D. A similar measure was previously introduced in 2015 by Thune and Wyden in the 114th Congress. A companion bill is expected to be reintroduced in the House.

Digital Marketplace
While the digital marketplace continues to evolve, federal law addressing taxation of digital goods and services “lags” behind, according to a joint press release issued by Thune and Wyden. “As a result, some consumers can be taxed multiple times on a single digitally delivered product or service by different tax jurisdictions,” Thune said. “Our bipartisan legislation simply prevents this duplicative and discriminatory taxation, which will help ensure today’s digital economy isn’t held back unnecessarily and can continue to offer opportunities to entrepreneurs and consumers alike,” Thune added.

“Preventing unfair taxes on music, books and other important goods and services benefits consumers and innovators alike,” Wyden said. “This bipartisan legislation solves a 21st century tax riddle by establishing a comprehensive set of rules for states to follow.”

Senate Lawmakers Examine Tax Reform’s Effect on Small Businesses

The Senate Small Business Committee held an October 3 hearing on expanding opportunities for small businesses through the tax code. Senate lawmakers examined tax reform’s effect on small businesses and discussed witnesses’ proposals to address ambiguity in the new tax code.

Various provisions of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) ( P.L. 115-97) were discussed among lawmakers and witnesses. Specifically, Opportunity Zones under the TCJA were of particular focus.

Opportunity Zones
The TCJA created certain tax benefits for long-term business investment in Qualified Opportunity Zones, which generally include economically distressed communities. Although the TCJA did not receive a single Democratic vote, the Opportunity Zones program was generally based on a bipartisan bill sponsored by Sens. Tim Scott, R-S.C., and Cory Booker, D-N.J.

The TCJA’s Opportunity Zones program established tax incentives to spur business investment in these low-income communities to produce economic growth. Investor tax benefits include:

  • a temporary tax deferral for capital gains reinvested in a qualified opportunity fund;
  • the elimination of up to 15 percent of the tax on the capital gain that is invested in the qualified opportunity fund; and
  • the potential for a permanent exclusion of tax when exiting a qualified opportunity fund investment.

“Opportunity Zones are the most innovative and ambitious federal attempt to encourage long-term private investment in low-income communities in at least a generation,” John Lettieri, president and CEO of Economic Innovation Group, testified. However, “investors have yet to receive the formal guidance or regulatory clarity needed to inform their decision-making,” he added.

Clarity/Reporting Metrics
Witnesses told lawmakers that definitional clarity and proper reporting metrics for the Opportunity Zone program are needed. Lettieri noted that Treasury has broad authority in determining Congressional intent for defining key terms pertaining to Qualified Opportunity Zone business and investment. “These rules must be designed with practical considerations and basic market flexibility in mind. If too narrow in scope or impractical in nature, the rules would undermine the very purpose for which this incentive was created,” Lettieri testified.

Additionally, John Arensmeyer, founder and CEO of Small Business Majority, stressed the importance of measuring the program’s success. Those metrics should include evaluating success “based on the number of jobs created, where those jobs are located, employee wages and the number of businesses created, particularly businesses formed by women or people of color,” Arensmeyer told lawmakers.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin recently expressed his support for Opportunity Zones. “I couldn’t be more excited about the opportunity zones,” Mnuchin said in an interview last week. “I think there’s going to be over $100 billion dollars in private capital that will be invested in opportunity zones,” he added.

Comment. The Office of Management and Budget’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) is currently reviewing proposed IRS regulations on “Capital Gains Invested in Opportunity Zones.”Generally, OIRA has 45 days to review proposed regulations but may expedite the process to 10 days for rules applicable to tax reform. According to the OIRA website, the proposed rule was submitted to OIRA on September 12, and the status of review is pending.

Stakeholders Weigh in on Proposed Passthrough Deduction Rules

Stakeholders are urging the IRS to clarify its guidance on tax reform’s new passthrough deduction. The IRS held an October 16 public hearing on proposed rules for the new Code Sec. 199Apassthrough deduction at its headquarters in Washington D.C. The IRS released the proposed regulations, REG-107892-18, on August 8.

Over 20 stakeholders and practitioners spoke at the hearing. Additionally, over 300 comments on the proposed rules have been submitted to Treasury and the IRS.

Passthrough Deduction
The new 20-percent deduction of qualified business income for passthrough entities, subject to certain limitations, was enacted as part of tax reform legislation last December. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act ( P.L. 115-97) created the new Code Sec. 199A passthrough deduction for noncorporate taxpayers, effective for tax years beginning after December 31, 2017. The deduction is scheduled to sunset in 2026.

Rental Real Estate
Several speakers at the hearing asked the IRS for guidance clarifying whether rental real estate activities are eligible for the deduction. Additionally, Troy Lewis, testifying on behalf of the American Institute of Certified Professional Accountants (AICPA), asked the IRS for guidance on specific circumstances in which rental real estate activities would not produce qualified trade or business income pursuant to the adopted Code Sec. 162 standard.

“Without further guidance clarifying when the rental of real estate would fail to rise to the level of a section 162 trade or business, unnecessary ambiguity exists that will likely create a divergence in practice,” the AICPA said in its written comments. “Taxpayers are thus left to pursue their own interpretation of the rules under section 199A and the IRS will likely face greater complexity of administration.”

Likewise, the Council for Electronic Revenue Communication Advancement (CERCA) submitted comments highlighting the uncertainty as to whether and when a rental property is generally considered a qualifying trade or business for purposes of the Code Sec. 199A deduction. Notably, CERCA referenced the preamble to the regulations that indicates taxpayers should look to existing case law to determine whether rental activities meet the Code Sec. 162 standard. However, existing case law does not consistently apply a set of factors that taxpayers could reliably apply as rules, according to CERCA.

Determining that all rental real estate is a trade or business for purposes of the deduction would significantly simplify the deduction, Iona Harrison said, testifying on behalf of the National Association of Realtors. Making such a determination would also simplify IRS administration, she added.

Several speakers and a number of comment letters requested that the IRS clarify its definition of a specified service trade or business (SSTB). The SSTB limitation is one of the most controversial provisions of the deduction. SSTBs are considered a “trade or business involving the performance of services in the fields of health, law, accounting, actuarial science, performing arts, consulting, athletics, financial services, investing and investment management, trading, dealing in certain assets or any trade or business where the principal asset is the reputation or skill of one or more of its employees,” according to the IRS.

To that end, Major League Baseball (MLB) has pitched its assertion to the IRS that professional sports clubs are neither “personal services corporations” nor provide “services,” as defined in Code Sec. 1202(e)(3)(A). The Office of the Commissioner of Baseball, which governs the 30 MLB clubs, has asserted in written comments that the business of a professional sports club is not an SSTB under Code Sec. 199A. Thus, “its owners should be allowed the full 199A deduction,” Commissioner Robert D. Manfred, Jr. wrote in submitted comments.

Questions Remain
The October 16 public hearing served more as an opportunity for stakeholders to highlight issues rather than a forum for the IRS to provide answers. Treasury and the IRS are expected to consider hearing testimony and written comments when finalizing the rules. The regulations are expected to be finalized before the 2019 tax filing season.