How States Can Gird for the Coming Fights Over Taxing Digital Ads

Link: https://www.governing.com/finance/How-States-Can-Gird-for-the-Coming-Fights-Over-Taxing-Digital-Ads.html

Excerpt:

Maryland’s Legislature recently overrode a gubernatorial veto and enacted a new tax on digital advertising — the first of its kind among the states. It was inevitable that somebody would break the ice. Last August, I explored the revenue implications for states and localities of a federal tax on interstate digital commerce. Globally, the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated business migration to Internet platforms, making this the new frontier for tax policy.

Maryland legislators deserve credit for planting their semi-checkered state flag first, to stake their claim, but they are still far from the finish line. Anti-tax wonks point to a host of possible legal snags that could tie up the Maryland tax for some time. They complain that it’s unduly vague, imprecisely crafted, and invites double taxation. The social media goliaths are already protesting that it’s unconstitutional under the commerce clause, which gives Congress supreme authority to regulate interstate business. To salvage its tax, Maryland may find it necessary to make defensible amendments that can withstand judicial scrutiny. But rather than going it alone, the state could use some help from its peers eyeing digital ad taxes of their own.

States have been called the laboratories of democracy, and rightfully so. However, when it comes to national and international commercial activity that sweeps across state lines through complex multi-party transactions, let’s face it: Heterogeneity and administrative complexity are not desirable outcomes. Fifty separate labs tinkering with different tax formulas will drive companies nuts.

Author(s): Girard Miller

Publication Date: 13 April 2021

Publication Site: Governing

Can Fiscal Alchemy Bolster Public Pension Funds?

Link: https://www.governing.com/finance/Can-Fiscal-Alchemy-Bolster-Public-Pension-Funds.html

Excerpt:

One way to put a quick sheen on pension funds’ balance sheets is to issue municipal bonds at a lower rate of interest than the pension fund is expected to earn. These “pension obligation bonds” (POBs) have a long and checkered history. The first one was sold tax-exempt by the city of Oakland, Calif., in 1985. It stirred up a hornet’s nest at the IRS, which quickly realized that the lower tax-exempt interest rate was subsidized by Uncle Sam in a no-brainer for the pension fund that in theory could just invest in taxable bonds to make a profit, even without risking money in stocks. Congress was prodded to prohibit the use of tax-exempt debt where there is a profit-seeking investment “nexus,” and thus was born a thick book of IRS “arbitrage” regulations. Consequently, POBs must now be taxable, with a higher interest cost.

When interest rates are low, as they are today, the underwriters and many financial consultants come out of the woodwork to pitch their POB deals. The lure is always the same: “Over 30 years, you will save money because history shows it’s almost a certainty that stocks will outperform low bond yields,” even if they are now taxable. I’ve written extensively on the foreseeable cyclical risks of selling POBs when the stock market is trading at record high levels: The underwriters and deal-peddlers will sneak away with their fees from the deal, and public officials will be left holding the bag whenever an economic recession or stock-market plunge drives the value of their pension funds’ “new” assets below the level of their outstanding POBs. The Government Finance Officers Association (GFOA) has long opposed POBs for this reason, among others. POBs make sense to me only when they are issued in recessionary bear markets.

Author(s): Girard Miller

Publication Date: 16 March 2021

Publication Site: Governing