He’s good enough, he’s smart enough, and doggone it, the state revenue departments loved Al Franken — once he paid $70,000 in back taxes.
Like many celebrities, Mr. Franken took his act on the road, making a good living on gigs in various states. Unlike many celebrities, Franken ran for office, subjecting his tax life to unnatural scrutiny. It turned out that he hadn’t filed taxes in every state where he earned money.
$70,000 of back taxes paid to 17 states later, Mr. Franken squeaked into the U.S. Senate by the narrowest of margins.
Franken has a lot of company in going from state to state without paying all of his taxes (he also has a lot of company in dumping on his accountant to weasel out of the blame). It’s a lot of work, and a lot of expense, for a traveling worker to pay taxes in every state. Every state has its own tax rules, and preparing all those returns isn’t cheap. Unfortunately, current law can make you taxable in a state with as little as one day of work.
State taxes are a compliance nighmare for glamour professions like sports, entertainment, construction and auditing. That’s why the Multistate Tax Commission is working on model legislation that would exempt workers from state taxes if they work in a state for less than 20 days in a year. That is, unless they work in sports, entertainment or construction (perhaps the only known instance where auditors aren’t abused worse than other professionals). A bill going nowhere in Congress, the Mobile Workforce State Income Tax Fairness and Simplification Act, would would create a 30-day threshold, but similarly screw entertainers and athletes, but not construction workers.
This raises the obvious question: why do they want to screw the athletes and entertainers? Presumably the states all want to pick Taylor Swift’s pocket (understandably), but for every Taylor Swift there are hundreds of struggling young musicians trying to scrape by and make a name for themselves. Yet the tax law, in all its majesty, requires the same level of tax compliance for millionairess Taylor Swift and the wonderful, but surely less prosperous, Carrie Rodriguez.
Small businesses used to be able to blow off states they only visited for a brief time. That’s becoming a bad bet. Better and cheaper data mining software makes it easier each year for state revenuers to sniff out temporary presence. If there is any publicity for your visit, you leave a Google trail. If you don’t file in a state, the statute of limitations never runs there, and you can build up a painful multi-year liability. If they catch you after the statute of limitations for your home state runs out, you lose your credit on the home state return for taxes paid in the other state — meaning you pay tax on the same income in two states.
So what do you do if you are a small business? Pay attention to which states you are doing business in. Don’t assume they just won’t notice you. Discuss things with your tax preparer. If you have sinned, most states will work out a deal through your preparer to only collect for a few years, and maybe waive penalties, if you come forward before they catch you. And remember that if you live in a high tax state, like California, New York or Iowa, you should be able to get an offsetting refund on your home state return for non-resident state taxes on an amended return for open years.
Joe Kristan is a shareholder of Roth & Company, P.C. in Des Moines, Iowa, author of the Tax Update Blog and Going Concern contributor. You can see all of his posts for GC here.