New Law in the Brief (Sort of): Act 162 and Taxes for Cash-Based Businesses

Hey everyone, long time no see . . . been very busy, but I am grateful for all the business deals that everyone has been doing.  It makes for an optimistic outlook in the economy and that there are a lot of creative people in Hawaii looking to be successful. Anyway, I am writing this post on Act 162 (SB1197 SD1 HD1) of the 2013 Hawaii Legislative Session because I am wondering did you file your General Excise/Use Tax Returns (more commonly known as GET)?  It was due on July 20th for monthly, quarterly, and semiannual (so all three categories basically).

Further, this Act even though it is so short highlights several key concepts to understanding government, law, and business.  Specifically the following aspects: (1) the concept of “sunset” provisions and how legislation is tied together over the years; (2) how laws are enforced (namely through taxes and penalties); and (3) the applicability of the law to people/businesses who don’t think the law applies (cash-based businesses and the GET in this case).

Let’s get to it!

Act 162: Relating to Tax Administration

Act 162’s measure title doesn’t really help tell you what it does. All it says is “relating to tax administration” so I can see how someone may just gloss over the title.  However, the description, which says “Deletes the sunset provisions for the special enforcement section of the department of taxation.” provides no insight either, unless you know what is the special enforcement section of the Department of Taxation.

Sunset Provisions and Repealing Them

Before, I get to the Special Enforcement Section, let’s touch upon the first concept I mentioned, the “sunset provision”.  So many times legislators are not sure about the effectiveness of a proposed law, it might be for a variety of reasons, may be the problem will go away, there is not enough money to fund the project, etc . . . so they put in a sunset provision, that is the law will repeal itself upon a certain date in the future (i.e. it will cease becoming law upon that date).  If you are a contract buff, consider it like a specified termination date in the agreement.

In Act 162, this is how the language looks like that references the sunset provision:

SECTION 1.  Act 134, Session Laws of Hawaii 2009, is amended by amending section 13 to read as follows:

"SECTION 13.  This Act shall take effect upon its approval; provided that:

(1)  The amendments made to section 235-20.5, Hawaii Revised Statutes, by this Act shall not be repealed when section 235-20.5, Hawaii Revised Statutes, is reenacted on January 1, 2011, pursuant to section 8 of Act 206, Session Laws of Hawaii 2007; and

(2)  Sections 231-F, 231-J, 231-K, 231-L, 231-M, 231-N, 231-O, and 231-P, Hawaii Revised Statutes, in section 2 of this Act shall take effect on July 1, 2009[; and

(3)  This Act shall be repealed on June 30, 2014, and section 235-20.5, Hawaii Revised Statutes, shall be reenacted in the form in which it read on the day prior to the effective date of section 8 of Act 206, Session Laws of Hawaii 2007; provided further that sections 231-1, 237-9, and 237-12(b), Hawaii Revised Statutes, shall be reenacted in the form in which they read on the day prior to the effective date of this Act]."

Notice the lined-through section?  That is the sunset provision from the original law that was passed, Act 134 from session 2009, which now Act 162 (2013) is amending.   So by strike-through, the goal of Act 162 is to delete that sunset provision from the Act 134 (2009) law.  Since no new date was put in, rather they deleted the whole section, this would mean that now Act 134 (2009) is permanent.

Click here to see the bill in its entirety.  Notice, that Act 162 DELETES the sunset provision.

Special Enforcement Section and Tying it Together

However, deleting the sunset provision of the previously enacted bill has no meaning to you unless you know what that bill did.  So notice that in Act 162 (2013) it tells you exactly that piece of information.  Specifically, that “Act 134, Session Laws of Hawaii 2009, is amended”, so if you look up Act 134 (2009) you would discover that the purpose of that act earlier was to:

The purpose of this Act is to provide the department of taxation with the necessary resources and tools to target high-risk, cash-based transactions to shore up confidence in Hawaii's tax system for those that do comply.  Importantly, the legislature intends that the enforcement resources provided focus on the civil collection and enforcement nature of Hawaii's tax laws.  In an effort to demonstrate the targets of this undertaking, this Act defines "cash-based business" for enforcement purposes, and the department of taxation is directed to focus on such businesses.  At the same time, education is equally important as enforcement.  Therefore, this Act requires the department of taxation to reach out to industry groups, specific demographics in the economy, and practitioners to educate taxpayers on their tax responsibilities.

While this is only describes the purpose, an in-depth look at the provisions of the bill would show that the Special Enforcement Section was created in the Department of Taxation and that its powers included investigation, enforcement, etc . . . for violations of the tax code, specifically targeting “cash-based businesses”.

Now what businesses primarily deal in cash?  You would probably think those vendors who are at farmers markets, craft and fairs, and swap meets.  You would be right because the since the creation of the Special Enforcement Section they have investigated numerous cash-based vendors and found that when asked for their tax license, they had none.  You can see some of the specifics from the Section’s reports by clicking the following for: (1)  July 1, 2009 through June 30, 2010 and (2) July 1, 2011 through June 30, 2012.

What you should take away from all of this is that if you are a cash-based business, you should realize that the deletion of the sunset provision effects you because the Special Enforcement Section of the Department of Taxation has been made permanent.  So it will continue to investigate and enforce penalties against you, if you are in violation of the law. Primarily focusing on the fact that if you do not have a tax license to conduct business you will pay a penalty.

What's the Penalty for Not Having a Tax License?

Act 134 (2009) amended Hawaii Revised Statute 237-9 by inserting the following language:

Any person who receives gross income or gross proceeds of sales or value of products from engaging in business in the State and who fails to obtain a license or receives gross income or gross proceeds of sales or value of products from engaging in business in the State without a license required under this section may be fined not more than $500; provided that a cash-based business may be fined not less than $500 and not more than $2,000, as determined by the director or the director's designee.  The penalty under this subsection shall be in addition to any other penalty provided under law and may be waived or canceled upon a showing of good cause.

So as a cash-based business can you afford penalties like these? 

But the Law Doesn’t Apply to Me! I only do this Occasionally . . . every Saturday, Sunday and Every Other Wednesday

I know, I can hear it right now, as I have with many clients, "X law does not apply to my Y situation" . . . well, to be honest your focus is perhaps cooking delicious food for people or creating a unique piece of art, but your craft is not the practice of the law (lawyers) or the application/enforcement of the law (government agents), so how can you be absolutely sure the law does not apply to you?

What you should realize that the words and definitions for the tax code are broad, so long as you are “engaged in business” you are subject to the tax.  HRS 237-2 defines:

"Business" as used in this chapter, includes all activities (personal, professional, or corporate), engaged in or caused to be engaged in with the object of gain or economic benefit either direct or indirect, but does not include casual sales.

I know you see it, it says “does not include casual sales” and you feel that you only show up on Saturdays to do your sales, well we look again at HRS 237-1 and find that “causal sales” means an “occasional or isolated sale or transaction” involving:

     (1)  Tangible personal property by a person who is not required to be licensed under this chapter, or

(2)  Tangible personal property which is not ordinarily sold in the business of a person who is regularly engaged in business.

Yeah, it is hard to imagine the Department of Taxation’s Special Enforcement Section buying into “occasional or isolated” when you show up for your slotted vendor stall on a regular section, and you are selling the same goods that you did the week before.  However, everyone’s facts and situation is different and it might be something worth looking into, but the point of this post is to generate some thought for you the reader the following:

  1. sunset provisions are temporary, but by deleting them it makes the law permanent;
  2. that a new law in one year you feel might not apply to you may actually have huge ramifications for your business because it is tied to a prior one that has continuously effected you; and
  3. your business is your business, but the applicability of the law is for enforcers and practitioners, however they can help you make better risk management decisions based on these laws. 

At the end of the day consider seeking professional (law, tax, and accounting) help to make determinations for your cash-based business.   As you’d rather be paying taxes on time rather than paying penalties and taxes for trying to avoid a law that you did not think applied to you because you were just taking cash or viewed yourself as “casual”.  It might be the time to register your LLC or corporation, update your accounting practices, or make better financial decisions in light of your taxes.

Mahalo for staying through this lengthy post!

P.S.

Need instructions on filing your returns? Click on this link to be taken to the State of Hawaii’s Department of Taxation’s General Instructions.

Considering getting a LLC or Corporation because your cash-based business needs it?  Review my downloadable one-sheet.  If you are a more visual person take a look at this infographic.

LEGAL DISCLAIMER: The information provided here is meant to be general information, and should not be taken as specific legal advice that pertains to any particular situation.  The reader should not base any decisions on the information here to act or refrain from acting regarding a legal problem.  If you believe you have a legal problem please seek legal advice from a licensed attorney in the relevant jurisdiction.