It is a rainy day in the Pacific Northwest with chances of snow showers. For those taxpayers that reside in the state of Washington or own highly appreciated capital assets located in the state, their day just got a bit gloomier.
Earlier today, the Washington Supreme Court, in a 7-2 opinion, overturned the Douglas County Superior Court decision that had ruled the state capital gains tax enacted by the legislature in 2021 violates the Washington State Constitution.
In its 50-plus page opinion written by Justice Debra L. Stevens, the majority of the court concludes:
“The court below [the Douglas County Superior Court] concluded the tax is a property tax that violates article VII’s uniformity requirement. In light of this ruling, the court did not address Plaintiffs’ additional constitutional challenges. We accepted direct review and now reverse. The capital gains tax is appropriately characterized as an excise because it is levied on the sale or exchange of capital assets, not on capital assets or gains themselves. This understanding of the tax is consistent with a long line of precedent recognizing excise taxes as those levied on the exercise of rights associated with property ownership, such as the power to sell or exchange property, in contrast to property taxes levied on property itself. Because the capital gains tax is an excise tax under Washington law, it is not subject to the uniformity and levy requirements of article VII. We further hold the capital gains tax is consistent with our state constitution’s privileges and immunities clause and the federal dormant commerce clause. We therefore reject Plaintiffs’ facial challenge to the capital gains tax and remand to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.”
As I previously reported, the Washington state capital gains tax has had a turbulent ride, commencing with a rough ride through the legislative process where it almost hit disastrous terrain on at least six (6) occasions. Then, it was hit with a lawsuit to strike it down as unconstitutional before Governor Inslee could even sign the legislation into law. Days later, it was sideswiped with a second lawsuit to end its short life.
As I reported on March 2, 2022, the new tax regime took a near lethal blow when Douglas County Superior Court Judge Brian C. Huber struck down the newly enacted Washington state capital gains tax as unconstitutional.
Judge Huber concluded:
ESSB 5096 violates the uniformity and limitation requirements of article VII, sections 1 and 2 of the Washington State Constitution. It violates the uniformity requirement by imposing a 7% tax on an individual's long-term capital gains exceeding $250,000 but imposing zero tax on capital gains below that $250,000 threshold. It violates the limitation requirement because the 7% tax exceeds the 1% maximum annual property tax rate of 1%.
As suspected by many local commentators, the state would not let the tax regime die without a fight. It is now seeking a higher court review of Judge Huber’s ruling, hoping to bring life back into the tax.
On March 25, 2022, Attorney General Robert W. Ferguson filed a notice of appeal. Instead of appealing to the Washington Court of Appeals (the normal course of review), Mr. Ferguson filed a petition requesting the Washington State Supreme Court hear the case.
As previously reported on May 7, June 17 and November 4 of last year, two lawsuits were filed in Douglas County Superior Court in Washington, seeking a declaration that the state’s new capital gains tax is unconstitutional. The court consolidated the cases. The parties filed cross motions for summary judgment, along with legal briefs in support of their positions. The lawyers for the State of Washington asked for a judgment that the tax regime meets constitutional muster. On the other hand, the lawyers for the taxpayers that initiated the case sought a judgment that the tax regime is unconstitutional.
As previously reported on May 7 and June 17 of this year, Washington state lawmakers enacted a new capital gains tax, set to go into effect on January 1, 2022, but two lawsuits were initiated to declare the tax unconstitutional. To date, the court cases are continuing their way through the judicial process.
On November 2, 2021, as part of the statewide general elections process, Washington voters were not asked to vote on the new state capital gains tax; rather they were asked for their opinion on the tax.
The specific question posed, as written by the Office of the Attorney General, is as follows:
As I previously reported, on May 4, 2021, Washington State Governor Jay Inslee signed Senate Bill 5096 ("SB 5096") into law, creating the state's first capital gains tax. It is set to go into effect on January 1, 2022.
The new law has had a turbulent ride during its infancy. Before Governor Inslee could even sign the bill into law, opponents to the legislation filed a lawsuit in the Superior Court of Washington for Douglas County, challenging the new tax regime as a tax on income – a violation of the state’s constitution. The plaintiffs in that case seek to enjoin the taxing authorities from assessing and collecting the tax or otherwise enforcing the new law.
The Oregon Society of Certified Public Accountants (OSCPA) will be hosting its 2021 Annual Real Estate Conference as a live webcast on Wednesday, June 9, 2021. I’ve been a frequent speaker at the OSCPA’s conferences over the past 30+ years. This year, I am looking forward to present on “Section 1031 Exchanges: A Look At Recent Developments and Other Tax Deferral Alternatives.”
On May 4, 2021, Washington Governor Jay Inslee signed Senate Bill 5096 ("SB 5096") into law, creating a capital gains tax regime in Washington. The bill has had a brief, but colorful journey so far. It appears that the journey is continuing.
Will Washington's capital gains tax be here to stay? At this point, it is anyone's guess.
SB 5096 was originally introduced to the Washington State Senate on January 6, 2021. It was passed by the Senate on March 6, 2021, after a hearing in the Senate Committee on Ways and Means, three readings and some floor amendments. The bill's passage margin in the Senate was narrow, receiving 25 affirmative votes and 24 negative votes.
On April 25, 2021, the Washington State Legislature passed Senate Bill 5096 (SB 5096). The bill was immediately sent to Governor's Inslee's desk for signature. It brings a new tax regime to the state of Washington.
Before we go into the details surrounding the new tax, I have to mention that it was challenged even before the governor had the opportunity to sign it into law. A group of potentially affected taxpayers filed a lawsuit in Douglas County, Washington, to strike down the new law as being unconstitutional. So, it is possible that SB 5096 will never breathe life.
Knowing that the new tax regime is under attack, it is still important to have a good understanding of it in the event it survives the battle.
It is not unreasonable to anticipate that there will be a federal tax policy transformation following a change in the political control of the White House, the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives. What may be unreasonable, however, is making knee-jerk tax planning decisions in anticipation of possible modifications to the Internal Revenue Code (the "Code"). Reactionary planning, unless it is well thought out and is based upon sound business judgment, could end up being disastrous. During the present times, tax advisors and their clients need to be cautious in their tax planning and any related decision-making.
Looking through a lens solely focused on federal taxation, it seems that commentators, tax advisors and taxpayers alike are all worried about the future. Possible tax policy changes on the horizon that are being bantered about include:
There has been a lot of “buzz” in the media about Qualified Opportunity Zones (“QOZs”). Some of the media accounts have been accurate and helpful to taxpayers. Other accounts, however, have been less than fully accurate, and in some cases have served to misinform or mislead taxpayers. Let’s face it, the new law is quite complex. Guidance to date from Treasury is insufficient to answer many of the real life questions facing taxpayers considering embarking upon a QOZ investment.
In this installment of our series on QOZs, we will try to address some of the questions that are plaguing taxpayers relative to investing in or forming Qualified Opportunity Funds (“QOFs”). Please keep in mind before you attempt to read this blog post that we readily admit that we do not have all of the answers. We do, however, recognize the many questions being posed by taxpayers.
Larry J. Brant
Larry J. Brant is a Shareholder and the Chair of the Tax & Benefits practice group at Foster Garvey, a law firm based out of the Pacific Northwest, with offices in Seattle, Washington; Portland, Oregon; Washington, D.C.; New York, New York, Spokane, Washington; Tulsa, Oklahoma; and Beijing, China. Mr. Brant is licensed to practice in Oregon and Washington. His practice focuses on tax, tax controversy and transactions. Mr. Brant is a past Chair of the Oregon State Bar Taxation Section. He was the long-term Chair of the Oregon Tax Institute, and is currently a member of the Board of Directors of the Portland Tax Forum. Mr. Brant has served as an adjunct professor, teaching corporate taxation, at Northwestern School of Law, Lewis and Clark College. He is an Expert Contributor to Thomson Reuters Checkpoint Catalyst. Mr. Brant is a Fellow in the American College of Tax Counsel. He publishes articles on numerous income tax issues, including Taxation of S Corporations, Reasonable Compensation, Circular 230, Worker Classification, IRC § 1031 Exchanges, Choice of Entity, Entity Tax Classification, and State and Local Taxation. Mr. Brant is a frequent lecturer at local, regional and national tax and business conferences for CPAs and attorneys. He was the 2015 Recipient of the Oregon State Bar Tax Section Award of Merit.