transient accommodations tax
Another state has been thwarted in its efforts to extend sales taxes to online travel companies (OTCs). On March 17, Hawaii’s Supreme Court awarded OTCs a partial victory, unanimously holding Travelocity and other OTCs were not liable for Hawaii’s transient accommodations tax (TAT), although they do have to pay a general excise tax (GET). The decision is likely the first ruling from a state supreme court on this subject. Previously, intermediate appellate courts in Colorado and North Carolina rejected state efforts to collect lodging taxes, which are similar to Hawaii’s TAT.
In 2011, Hawaii’s director of taxation assessed nearly a dozen OTCs for unpaid excise and transient accommodation taxes. The excise tax is not a sales tax. Hawaii’s GET is a tax on the gross receipts of businesses. On most services the GET is 4% or 4.5%. A business may elect to pass the GET onto its customers, which makes it seem like a sales tax, but it is not required to do so.
The TAT is a 7.25% sales tax on hotel rooms. The “operator” of the hotel or accommodation is responsible for collecting the tax and remitting it to the state. OTCs, of course, do not own or operate hotel rooms. They contract with hotels to sell rooms online. The hotel charges the OTC a net rate for the room; the OTC then sells the room for a price above the net rate and keeps the difference.
Nobody disputes the hotels are liable for the GET and TAT on their respective share of the room sales. But the OTCs argued they should not have to pay either tax on their markups, as they neither physically conduct business within the state of Hawaii nor personally operate any hotel rooms. The Hawaii Supreme Court, following the leads of the intermediate courts in Colorado and North Carolina, agreed with the OTCs on the latter point. The court rejected the director of taxation’s efforts to expand the definition of “operator” under the TAT to OTCs.
Hawaii law imposes the transient accommodations tax on businesses involved in the “actual furnishing of transient accommodations.” The word “actual” is key here, the court explained, because it indicates the Hawaii legislature only intended to tax a single “operator” per hotel room. The law “does not contemplate or allow for multiple operators when a transient accommodation is furnished.” This means only the hotels, and not the OTCs, are responsible for the TAT.
However, the OTCs are liable for the GET, because that is a tax on both the “operator” of a hotel and any travel agency or tour packager. In this context, the court said, OTCs are travel agencies. And even if they lack a physical presence in Hawaii, they remain subject to the excise tax because they “receive income by virtue of selling the right to occupy hotel rooms located in Hawaii.” Still, the court’s decision will significantly reduce the OTCs’ tax bill, which would have been over $250 million had the state prevailed on the TAT issue.
S.M. Oliva is a writer living in Charlottesville, Virginia. He edits the international legal blog PrivyCouncil.info
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