If you are following state income tax developments to any degree, then you are aware of the ambiguity in state tax law that is leading to strange outcomes in court cases, new legislation by state legislatures, policies and procedures by departments of revenue, and even positions taken by taxpayers. Recent developments in tax reform, economic nexus, market-based sourcing, Multistate Tax Commission three-factor apportionment election cases, alternative apportionment, combined reporting, transfer pricing, OECD (Organization of Economic Co-Operation and Development) BEPS (Base Erosion and Profit Shifting), and tax haven legislation are creating risks and opportunities for corporate taxpayers.
Ambiguity, in general, creates challenges in the form of complicated laws (changing daily), vague statute of limitations, unreasonable audit positions, and computer generated notices. Ambiguity is allowing states to re-interpret current law so they can obtain different results without actually changing their law. States are also enacting new legislation retroactively to avoid payouts of large tax refunds.
An example of ambiguity causing controversy is the recent Texas Margin tax case (Hallmark Mktg Co. v. Hegar, Tex., No. 14-1075, 10/9/15). The issue in the case surrounded the Texas regulation that requires “only the net gain” to be included in the apportionment factor (denominator). The state’s position was that the regulation requires both ‘net gain’ and ‘net loss’ to be included in the apportionment factor. Consequently, the state's position is that the regulation is ambiguous. The taxpayer's position is that the regulation only requires net gain. Hence, the taxpayer holds that the regulation is not ambiguous and not open to interpretation. The Texas Court of Appeals held that Texas’ interpretation of regulation was ‘reasonable’ (November 2014). Taxpayers are concerned the ruling “creates uncertainty about whether numerous sections of Texas' franchise tax regulations can be reinterpreted by the Comptroller under the guise of ambiguity.” The Texas Supreme Court is set to hear oral arguments on December 9, 2015.
The Texas case is only one example. I could discuss many more and may do so in future blog posts.
The question we should be asking is - can current law be interpreted more than one way? The law you are analyzing for your company at this very moment - is it ambiguous or is it clear? Will the state you are dealing with reinterpret the law under audit or litigation?
Regardless of the answers, ambiguity requires action. Ambiguity requires corporations and taxpayers to be proactive and find solutions and reduce risk. Corporations need tools to determine whether a trend (i.e., court case, ruling, etc.) is a risk or opportunity. Even more than planning, corporations need to be able to determine what position they "should" take. What is reasonable? What is "more likely than not"? Compliance, controversy and provision requirements demand companies to answer these questions. How do you answer these questions? What tools do you use? Who do you talk to?
We must eliminate ambiguity or use it to our advantage.