State lawmakers, tax officials, and representatives of the business and software communities voted 4-3 on Monday to exempt businesses from a tax on cloud computing services in a set of recommendations to the Legislature.
The members of the Sales and Use Tax Study Committee who are in favor of a tax on remotely accessed software argued that the state would lose $2 million in potential tax revenue in the first year, and untold millions more in future years, as businesses expanded and scrambled to exploit a tax exemption.
Those against the tax on cloud computing said the economic benefits of an exemption would outweigh lost tax revenue, by keeping businesses, jobs, and especially software companies in the state.
The legal and tax definition of cloud computing is disputed and complex, but the term broadly means computing services accessed off site, in a location distinct from where underlying physical infrastructure is located.
Tax Commissioner Mary Peterson, a member of the study panel who voted against the tax, reiterated the Shumlin administration’s stance.
“The administration actually has been pretty clear that, both as a matter of economic development and administrative efficiency that we didn’t think we should be taxing cloud software going forward,” said Peterson.
“To use a bad pun, the landscape is so cloudy, with what other states are doing,” she said.
According to the study committee’s draft report, there’s no uniform way in which states approach taxation of cloud-based services.
“From my perspective, just administratively, the discussion today illustrates how complex this area is, and how it’s not well understood,” said Peterson. Committee members, for example, disagreed on the basic question of whether cloud computing is a service or a good, which is ordinarily subject to the state’s 6 percent sales tax.
“I certainly think that Vermont should not be on the leading edge of this,” Peterson said. She prefers to wait for consensus from national organizations.
Study committee chair and House Ways and Means chairwoman Rep. Janet Ancel, D-Calais, voted in support of a cloud computing tax, along with Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell, D-Windsor, and Rep. Kesha Ram, D-Burlington.
“If we pass the exemption, which is what the 4-3 vote would do, then we do lose revenue. There’s no question about it,” said Ancel after the meeting. “I think most of us agree that whatever the figure is, it’s likely to grow, even over the relatively short term, even over, say, five years or so … That would be something we’d need to account for.”
Ancel doesn’t know how much the state has lost in forgone revenue thanks to the current moratorium on cloud computing taxes, passed by the Legislature last year and due to expire on July 1, 2013.
The study committee’s recommendation, due in a January report to lawmakers, will add to the debate which lawmakers will ultimately have to take up. The Legislature must decide this year whether to let the moratorium expire or make the cloud computing tax exemption permanent. The Tax Department previously assessed the tax on businesses.
Tom Torti, president of the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce president and a committee member, voted to oppose a cloud computing tax, along with technology entrepreneur Trevor Crist, Tax Commissioner Peterson, and Sen. Richard Westman, R-Cambridge, who is a former state tax commissioner.
“Unlike other states that can practice checkbook economic development, companies come to Vermont for a mosaic of reasons,” Torti said. “If over the long term we’re trying to raise money, bring young people here, grow new businesses, why take one of the pieces of the economic development mosaic off the table?”
“We may lose $2 million in revenue over the short term, but we’re likely, if we can grow this sector, to make $10 million or more, in the future,” Torti said.
Torti said a tax would harm both the technology industry and small businesses more broadly.
The Legislature’s economist Tom Kavet previously disputed that notion in testimony to the committee, saying that those who benefit most from a tax exemption are mostly big companies who purchase cloud computing services, not the software industry. Kavet told VTDigger a cloud computing tax exemption would not be beneficial. “I just think that if you want to help the software industry, this isn’t the way to help the software industry,” Kavet said. The state’s efforts to provide universal broadband access is a better way to boost the local technology industry, he said.
“They [the state] have to raise taxes somewhere else,” he said. “It’s just shifting the tax burden. It’s not really doing anything to help the software industry per se.”
Campbell was the most vocal critic of the tax exemption on the panel, arguing that forgone revenues would mushroom in future years, depriving Vermonters of much-needed state services. He added language to the draft report requesting that the Legislature, the Tax Department, and the Agency of Commerce and Community Development continue to monitor this narrow tax topic closely.
The study panel also decided unanimously to recommend that Vermont’s sales tax remain restricted to goods, and not expanded to services — despite declining state sales tax revenue and a previous recommendation for an expansion of the sales tax on services from the Blue Ribbon Tax Structure Commission.
The panel also preferred to let Congress take the initiative on whether sales tax should be collected from remote and online sellers of retail goods, who include companies like Amazon.com.
The draft report estimates an annual loss of $40 million in sales tax revenue because of untaxed remote sales, but points out that three distinct pending federal bills, if any single one is passed, would allow Vermont to collect revenue already due.
Although U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., has worked to pass such legislation, Ancel said that progress on an online retail sales tax at the federal level isn’t promising.
The study panel’s three key recommendations are all in line with the Shumlin administration’s preferences.