Archive for the ‘California’ Category

Derailed

Friday, May 17th, 2019

California’s “Train to Nowhere,” the alleged high-speed rail that would link San Francisco and Los Angeles (originally), and, now, the thriving metropolises of Shafter (just north of Bakersfield) and Merced is in deep trouble. Well, it has been in deep trouble since day one of the project but the trouble is now far worse: The US Department of Transportation canceled funding of nearly $929 million. That cancellation stops $929 million of funds from heading to California. Making matters worse, the US is considering asking for $2.5 billion to be returned.

Based on CHSRA’s repeated failure to submit critical required deliverables and its failure to make sufficient progress to complete the Project (as defined in Attachment 2, Section 1 h, of the FY 10 Agreement) hy the close of the performance period, and after careful consideration of the information presented by CHSRA in its March 4, 2019, letters to me and to Ms. Jamie Rennert (CHSRA Response) (included as Ex. C and Ex. D, respectively), FRA has determined that CHSRA has violated the terms of the FY 10 Agreement and has failed to make reasonable progress on the Project.

CHSRA consistently and repeatedly failed in its management and delivery of the Project, and in meeting the terms and conditions of the FY 1O Agreement, all of which constitute violations of the FY lO Agreement. Despite extensive guidance from FRA, CHSRA was unable to prepare and submit fundamental Project delivery documents (e.g., budgets, Funding Contribution Plans (FCPs), and Project Management Plans (PMPs)). CHSRA’s inability to track and report near-term milestones, as described further below, shows that CHSRA is likewise unable to forecast accurately a long-term schedule and costs for the Project. Further, after almost a decade, CHSRA has not demonstrated the ability to complete the Project, let alone to deliver it by the end of 2022, as the FY 10 Agreement requires. As described further below, CHSRA is chronically behind in Project construction activities and has not been able to correct or mitigate its deficiencies. Overall, such critical failures completely undermine FRA’s confidence in CHSRA’s ability to manage the Project effectively. [footnote omitted]

This is what almost every critic of this project has said from day one. The cost has gone from $10 billion to somewhere north of $70 billion (I’ve seen estimates that range from $72 billion to well over $100 billion). The demand for high-speed rail between Bakersfield and Merced isn’t high, so the project is going to have problems breaking even.

California Governor Gavin Newsom said he would fight the decision in court. But for now, I will not be surprised if the California high-speed rail line turns into a brand new bikeway sometime in the future.

Bozo Tax Tip #2: We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Employees (Especially Because We’re Lawyers)

Thursday, April 11th, 2019

A few years ago, I first heard about the law firm that had no employees. Now, I can imagine a small firm of, say, three or four partners, with no clerical staff as a possibility. However, having dealt with enough attorneys there are always secretaries, paralegals, clerks, and junior lawyers because most clients don’t way to pay $400 an hour for typing.

Joe Kristan (who formerly had the Roth CPA tax update blog) wrote about the Donald Cave Law Firm in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. A few years ago the firm found itself in Tax Court claiming that the three associates of the firm weren’t employees because the owner, Mr. Cave, alleged he didn’t have enough control over them. Now, do you really believe that a senior lawyer at any firm would allow junior attorneys to do their own thing? Of course not, and the Tax Court didn’t believe it either.

That wasn’t the end of the story, though. The firm appealed and their fate at the Fifth Circuit was, well, what you would expect.

Finally, with respect to the law clerk, Michael Matthews, the record shows that Donald Cave hired Matthews and exercised complete control over the assignment of Matthews’ work for the Firm. Although Matthews also worked for other lawyers and law firms, providing services to multiple employers does not necessitate treatment as an independent contractor…Matthews was paid a salary by the Cave Law Firm of approximately $1250 every two weeks, which amounts to $30,000 per year, regardless of the amount of work he performed during that time period. Contrary to the Firm’s suggestion, Matthews was not paid a minimal amount for essentially piecework. Instead, he entered into a verbal contract with Donald Cave and the Firm for a fixed sum to provide services at the direction of Cave, and there was no evidence that he could reject any work he did not wish to perform. Furthermore, Matthews could neither increase his profit through his own skill and initiative, nor would he suffer the risk of any losses. Matthews also made no investment in the facilities because the Firm provided him with the amenities needed to complete his work.

Can you really imagine that a clerk at a law firm isn’t an employee? I can’t, and neither could the judges at the Fifth Circuit.

The point of this is to be careful about who you claim are independent contractors. If you give John a research project, and don’t control his activities, and he’s working in another state on his own, that truly sounds like an independent contractor. However, if John’s working in your office, and your supervising his every move, etc., trying to claim he’s an independent contractor when he’s really an employee can lead to a big heartache.

Additionally, some states are far tougher on the independent contractor/employee decision than the IRS. Indeed, my old homestead of California is probably the most difficult state in the country to have independent contractors. California’s Employment Development Department (EDD) has an excellent publication on this issue (EDD Publication 38). There’s even a help line you can call.

So if you really have independent contractors, great. But if you’re a law firm and you really, really think that your secretary and the filing clerk are independent contractors you are committing a Bozo act.

Bozo Tax Tip #9: Nevada Corporations

Tuesday, April 2nd, 2019

Actually, this isn’t that much of a Bozo Tax Tip. Nevada is a great state to have your business in. But the key is being in Nevada (or operating in multiple states and selecting Nevada as your corporate domicile). You cannot escape California taxes by being a Nevada corporation if you’re still operating in the Bronze Golden State.

If the corporation operates in California it will need to file a California tax return. Period. It doesn’t matter if the corporation is a California corporation, a Delaware corporation, or a Nevada corporation.

Now, if you’re planning on moving to Nevada forming a business entity in the Silver State can be a very good idea (as I know). But thinking you’re going to avoid California taxes just because you’re a Nevada entity is, well, bozo.

Can a California or Massachusetts Professional Gambler Take a Business Loss on His or Her State Tax Return?

Tuesday, March 19th, 2019

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) eliminated the ability of a professional gambler to take a loss on his Schedule C based on his business expenses; Congress specifically overrode the Mayo v Commissioner decision. But what about state taxes? Can a professional gambler who had a losing year take a loss on those returns?

First, no professional gambler can take a loss based on his gambling results. Internal Revenue Code Section 165(d) prohibits gambling losses in excess of wins. Every state with a state income tax conforms to this.

But state conformity to the TCJA is decidedly mixed. California does not conform to almost any part of the TCJA. The Franchise Tax Board produced a publication showing each change in law and the impact to California. At the bottom of page 89 is the beginning of the discussion on Section 11050 of the TCJA (which changed the rules for professional gamblers). The FTB publication notes:

California conforms, under the PITL, to the federal rules relating to the deduction for losses from wagering transaction[s] under IRC section 165(d), as of the specified date of January 1, 2015, but does not conform to the federal limitation on the deduction.

Thus, a California professional gambler can take a loss based on his business expenses on his state tax return.

Massachusetts also doesn’t conform to federal law in this area. However, Massachusetts does not allow losses from any business to be reported on its tax returns. Thus, a Massachusetts professional gambler wasn’t able to take a loss based on his business expenses in the past and cannot today.

State conformity on the provisions of the TCJA will vary among the states. If you reside in or must pay state taxes, this is a key issue that you must discuss with your tax professional.

Arizona Asks Supreme Court to Stop California From Imposing California Tax on Passive LLC Investments

Tuesday, March 12th, 2019

We’ve highlighted this issue before. Suppose you are an Arizona resident, and you form Primary LLC in Arizona. Its main purpose is owning a warehouse in Phoenix. But you have some extra money in the LLC, so you invest in Secondary LLC, a Nevada LLC. Secondary invests in various things, including Tertiary LLC, a California LLC. Would the Franchise Tax Board, California’s income tax agency, allege that Primary LLC is doing business in California? You bet. Would they come after you for California’s minimum $800 a year LLC tax? Absolutely. Would they then assess late filing penalties, filing fees, and interest if you don’t pay, and issue payment demands through banks? Of course they have and will do so.

Arizona’s Attorney General, Mark Brnovich, doesn’t like this. He alleges that California is illegally going after Arizona LLCs, and illegally demanding payments from Arizona banks. Mr. Brnovich is asking the US Supreme Court to allow Arizona to sue California at the Supreme Court, as there’s no other venue for such a lawsuit. The Supreme Court will likely rule on the first issue–whether the lawsuit can proceed–before the end of June. If the Supreme Court allows the lawsuit, it would likely be heard next fall or winter in Washington.

By the way, those entities who have fought the FTB in California courts have won their cases. The problem, though, is it costs just $800 to pay the LLC tax; it costs thousands of dollars to fight the FTB. Mr. Brnovich is absolutely correct that it doesn’t make sense for most companies to fight California.

No Man Is an Island

Monday, March 11th, 2019

On Saturday a superb editorial appeared in the Providence Journal, “When Taxpayers Flee a State.” Here’s an excerpt:

Despite its name, Rhode Island is not an island unto itself. People are free to come and go, including business executives who create jobs and pay high taxes. That is why the state has to be careful that its tax policies do not drive away too many investors or taxpayers…

In high-tax Connecticut next door, billionaires are already escaping. As Chris Edwards of the libertarian Cato Institute notes (“Wealthy Taxpayers are Fleeing These States in Droves,” Daily Caller, Oct. 2), Connecticut in recent years “has lost stock trading entrepreneur Thomas Peterffy (worth $20 billion), executive C. Dean Metropoulos ($2 billion), and hedge fund managers Paul Tudor Jones ($4 billion) and Edward Lampert ($3 billion).”

People can, and will, relocate no matter how nice the climate. I loved living in Irvine, California, but California’s business climate drove me (and I’m not a billionaire) to low-tax, low-regulation Nevada. Rhode Island has lost $1.4 billion of income over the last ten years. The solution for both a small state (Rhode Island) and a large state (California) is identical: low tax rates over a broad swath, rather than very high tax rates in narrow areas. Of course, California now has high taxes over almost everything and a regulatory climate that is the worst in the country.

No, Manny Machado Can’t Avoid Paying California Tax by Being a Florida Resident

Thursday, February 21st, 2019

Earlier this week Manny Machado reportedly signed a baseball free agent contract to play with the San Diego Padres. He’s being paid $300 million over ten years…but that’s before taxes. An article on a website called “12up” says that Mr. Machado will be able to avoid California income tax through “creative posturing” as a Florida resident. The article is wrong.

Mr. Machado is one of many individuals impacted by the “Jock Tax.” This tax impacts entertainers, athletes, and professional poker players and requires income tax be paid based on the source of the income. Let’s assume Mr. Machado is a Florida resident; he would owe Florida income tax on his worldwide income. Since Florida has no state income tax, he owes nothing, right? Well, he owes nothing to Florida but the Padres play games in many states with a state income tax (including California); he will clearly owe California income tax on some of his income.

The Jock Tax is based on ‘duty days’ (not games played). Let’s assume out of the (approximately) 200 days in a baseball season 100 of those days are in California. He will owe tax on 100/200 of his salary (or half). He will avoid owing tax on all of his income to California, but to say he will completely avoid California taxation is dead wrong. While it’s true that California won’t gain $38 million a year, it’s probable that the state will collect over $20 million a year: Not only will Mr. Machado play half his games in San Diego, the Padres will play many games in Los Angeles and San Francisco–and those games will also cause Mr. Machado to owe California income tax.

Gilbert Hyatt Wins Again But…

Thursday, January 17th, 2019

The California Office of Tax Appeals upheld the California Board of Equalization’s ruling that Gilbert Hyatt mostly doesn’t owe California income tax in 1991 or 1992. Yes, you’re reading that correctly: This is a case that is 27 years in the making.

This is the same case that reached the US Supreme Court for the third time this month. The Supreme Court will decide whether or not states have sovereign immunity in other state’s court systems. (Mr. Hyatt sued the Franchise Tax Board in Nevada over various torts committed by the FTB.)

Unlike Bloomberg Tax which noted that the “[case] appears to be over,” I strongly suspect that the Franchise Tax Board (California’s income tax agency) will appeal the ruling into the court system. The FTB’s normal strategy is to exhaust litigation opponents. Thus, I believe that an appeal into the court system is likely.

Gilbert Hyatt and the Franchise Tax Board Head Back to the Supreme Court…Again

Sunday, January 6th, 2019

Back in 1993 (that is not a typographical error), California’s Franchise Tax Board (FTB) initiated a residency audit of Gilbert Hyatt. Mr. Hyatt invented some technology relating to microprocessors in 1990. In 1991 he realized he was going to receive some large royalty payments; he moved from high-tax California to low-tax Nevada. The question was when did he move–was it in April 1992 or October 1991?

The auditors for the FTB committed various torts (for example, they rummaged through Mr. Hyatt’s garbage and did not obey privacy rules). The FTB ruled against Mr. Hyatt; Mr. Hyatt sued the FTB in Nevada state courts. That lawsuit is now heading to the US Supreme Court for the third time. This case will be heard on Wednesday (January 9th). SCOTUSBlog has an excellent preview of the arguments in this case.

Dan Walters is reporting that the FTB has also asked for a rehearing of the decision which went against the FTB at the Board of Equalization. The request for a rehearing is at the new California Office of Tax Appeals. If the rehearing isn’t granted (or if the FTB loses of the Office of Tax Appeals), expect the FTB to appeal the decision into the California court system. It’s likely this case will still be going on when I retire (which is many years away).

There are several points that the average person should realize regarding this case. First, if you’re going to move from a high-tax state to a low-tax state, really move. Make sure you have a clean break from the state.

Second, if you have a high income be aware that your old state may conduct a residency audit. Like almost everything in tax, you’re guilty until proven innocent. In a residency audit, the tax agency will look at your bank and credit card statements to see where you really were. If you said you relocated on July 1, and your credit card statement shows charges from your old state through September 30, you’re going to have a problem.

Finally, California tries to exhaust litigation opponents. The phrase “Pyrrhic Victory” absolutely comes to mind when you deal with the Franchise Tax Board. Additionally, the FTB believes that the whole world owes California tax. Their institutional mentality is definitely not pro-taxpayer.

As for Mr. Hyatt, if he wins this case at the Supreme Court he will eventually be collecting his reduced judgment (in the case in Nevada). If he loses, it’s probable he will be out a ton in legal fees and 15 years of his life and get nothing out of it.

The 2018 Tax Offender of the Year

Monday, December 31st, 2018

Another year has gone by. And that means it’s once again time for that most prestigious of prestigious awards, the Tax Offender of the Year. As usual, there’s a plethora of nominees. As usual, I wish there weren’t any deserving winners.

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) received a nomination. “This isn’t tax simplification, and few have received benefits,” a correspondent told me. The first part of the statement is absolutely true. The TCJA is anything but simplification. As for few receiving benefits, almost all the provisions of the TCJA impact 2018 taxes (and onward). We’ll have a much better idea of what this law will (or won’t) due to taxpayers in a few months. I’m holding this nomination in abeyance until next year.

The Miccosukee tribe of Indians received another nomination. The tribe has been fighting a losing battle over the taxation of profits from their casino in southern Florida. The tribe itself is exempt from taxation (it’s a sovereign nation); however, members of the tribe are not exempt based on distributions of those profits. This issue has been percolating up and down the Tax Court, District Courts, and the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals for a few years. On June 4th the 11th Circuit ruled in United States v Jim:

When an Indian tribe decides to distribute the revenue from gaming activities, however, the distributions are subject to federal taxation. Id. § 2710(b)(3)(D). The Indian tribe, as a consequence, must report the distributions, notify its members of their tax liability, and withhold the taxes due on them. Id. § 2710(b)(3)(D); 26 U.S.C. §§ 3402(r)(1), 6041(a).

In the case before us, an Indian tribe engaged in gaming activities. Each quarter, the tribe used the revenue of the gaming activities to fund per capita distributions to its members. But the tribe disregarded its tax obligations on these distributions. It neither reported the distributions nor withheld taxes on them…

In this appeal, the member and the tribe contend that the District Court erred in concluding that the exemption for Indian general welfare benefits did not apply to the distributions. The tribe alone asserts that the District Court erroneously upheld tax penalties against the member and incorrectly attributed to the member the distributions of her husband and daughters. Lastly, the tribe argues that the District Court erred by entering judgment against it as an intervenor.

We affirm the ruling of the District Court in each of these matters. The distribution payments cannot qualify as Indian general welfare benefits under [the Tribal General Welfare Exclusion Act] because Congress specifically subjected such distributions to federal taxation in [the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act]. The member has waived any arguments as to penalties or the amount assessed against her, and the tribe lacks a legal interest in those issues. The District Court did not err in entering judgment against the tribe because the tribe intervened as of right and the Government sought to establish its obligation to withhold taxes on the distributions. [footnote omitted]

This taxpayer owes $278,758.83 as of April 9, 2015; the tribe and its members could owe more than $1 billion in personal income taxes. Yet that sum pales in comparison to our ‘winner.’


As most of you know, I grew up just outside of Chicago. I have fond memories of riding the El and of taking the train up to Milwaukee. Subways and other forms of mass transit work well in dense cities such as Chicago, New York, and Boston.

Amtrak, however, has been a money loser. Running passenger trains through the northeast corridor ekes out a profit, but the rest of the service doesn’t make money. Put simply, you need a dense corridor to make trains a winner.

In November 2008, California voters passed Proposition 1A. As noted in the ballot summary, “Provides for a bond issue of $9.95 billion to establish high-speed train service linking Southern California counties, the Sacramento/San Joaquin Valley, and the San Francisco Bay Area.” The argument in favor stated:

Proposition 1A is a $9.95 billion bond measure for an 800-mile High-Speed Train network that will relieve 70 million passenger trips a year that now clog California’s highways and airports—WITHOUT RAISING TAXES…

Proposition 1A will save time and money. Travel from Los Angeles to San Francisco in about 2½ hours for about $50 a person. With gasoline prices today, a driver of a 20-miles-per-gallon car would spend about $87 and six hours on such a trip.

The rebuttal to the argument stated:

Prop. 1A is a boondoggle that will cost taxpayers at least $20 billion in principal and interest. The whole project could cost $90 billion—the most expensive railroad in history. No one really knows how much this will ultimately cost.

Now that we’re ten years after passage, we can determine that both sides were wrong. The last official analysis showed a price tag of $77 billion. The New York Times, in an article this past July, upped the price to $100 billion. So both sides were wrong about the cost, but the opponents had the right idea. And with this project years from completion and the cost having risen every time there’s been a new analysis, I’ll take the over on $100 billion. That’s why California’s high speed rail project (aka “The Train to Nowhere”) is this year’s Tax Offender of the Year.

So where will the money come from to build the train? It’s not coming from this Congress; President Trump and Republicans in Congress vociferously oppose the project. Proposition 1A says that the train must be self-supporting; less than 3% of high-speed train networks in the world are self-supporting. Authority Spokeswoman Lisa Marie Alley told the Sacramento Bee “We haven’t been shy about the fact that this project was never fully funded.” The hope is that once the system begins to operate that it will show private industry its usefulness and that they would be willing to invest in the project.

Consider that the first segment will run from Shafter, just north of Bakersfield, to Madera, a bit south of Merced. It does go through the San Joaquin Valley’s largest city, Fresno, but it does not run through Visalia; instead, it runs near Hanford. I’ll be blunt: There’s no chance that the first segment will be self-supporting. There aren’t enough riders wanting to commute between these cities to make the line profitable. Additionally, state route 99 runs between all these cities. Yes, it will take longer in a car but you have your own transportation when you get to your destination, and you don’t have to wait for the train.

Where high speed rail works is in dense corridors. For example, the Japanese bullet trains run between such cities as Tokyo (population 38 million for the metropolitan area), Osaka (19 million), and Nagoya (9 million). The California bullet trains will initially run between Shafter (population 19,608) and Madera (population 65,508). If we use Bakersfield (840,000 for the metropolitan area) and Fresno (972,000) we get something a little better. Still, how many people really commute between these cities? Having lived in Visalia for years, I can state unequivocally it’s not a lot.

Proponents argue that once the train reaches the Bay Area and Southern California, ridership will pick up; both metropolitan areas have millions of residents. But there’s a huge difference between Tokyo and either California metropolitan area. The Tokyo metropolitan area is 5,240 square miles with a population of 38 million. The Los Angeles metropolitan area is 33,954 square miles with a population of 18.7 million. The Bay Area is 10,191 square miles with a population of 7.77 million. Put simply, Japan is densely populated so train travel works very well.

Additionally, there are several airports serving both the Los Angeles metropolitan area (Los Angeles International, Burbank, Ontario, Long Beach, and Orange County) and the Bay Area (San Francisco, San Jose, and Oakland). There are numerous flights between each of the Southern and Northern California airports. These flights take about one hour and cost about $100. High speed rail is going to have to beat that in some way in order to attract paying customers. Frankly, I doubt either will happen.

If the system is built, I do think that it will attract riders going to and from the Central Valley. There aren’t many flights to Fresno from the Bay Area (or from Los Angeles). There’s also the issue of demand; there really isn’t that much into the Valley. But the service can certainly attract riders there. However, it’s not going to be near enough riders for the project to pay for itself.

The problem for California taxpayers is that they are liable for the project. Those bonds will need to be paid back. There’s a need for at least another $70 billion to finish the line. The best estimate for the annual subsidy is $100 million. Yes, I know that Proposition 1A specified that there can’t be a subsidy. Does anyone really believe that California’s politicians will follow the law on this? (Hint: I don’t.)

But Russ, this is a state project. Its impact is limited to California. If California wants to shoot itself in the foot, we should let it. The problem with that argument is that the next time the California economy suffers a downturn, California will run to Congress for a bail-out. Today, the Trump Administration is likely to tell California, “No.” However, I have my doubts that a future Democratic administration won’t go for a bail-out on this project, leaving non-Californians liable for this boondoggle. There’s a need for $70 billion. The sooner that this project is put out of its misery the better for both California and the country.

Quentin Kopp, a former Supervisor in San Francisco, was the man who introduced the project and was a proponent. He told reason.com

It is foolish, and it is almost a crime to sell bonds and encumber the taxpayers of California at a time when this is no longer high-speed rail. And the litigation, which is pending, will result, I am confident, in the termination of the High-Speed Rail Authority’s deceiving plan…

[The selling of bonds is] deceit. That’s not a milestone, it’s desperation, because High-Speed Rail Authority is out of money.

California High Speed Rail is a worthy winner of the 2018 Tax Offender of the Year award.


That’s a wrap on 2018. I wish you and yours a happy, healthy, and prosperous New Year!