The Surly Subgroup Turns One!

Time flies when you’re having fun, I guess. Today is the one-year blogiversary of the Surly Subgroup. What started off as a group-blogging experiment hatched at last year’s Critical Tax Conference at Tulane Law School has provided quite a bit of entertainment for Surly bloggers and our guest bloggers, and hopefully for our readers as well.

It’s obviously been a big year on tax and other fronts. Since our inception, we’ve published 206 blog posts on a variety of topics. And we’ve drawn readers from 140 different countries.

Surly regulars and guest bloggers have covered various tax-related issues surrounding politics and the 2016 election—including disclosure of presidential tax returns, the Emoluments Clause, the Trump Foundation, and the Clinton Foundation. We’ve written about churches, 501(c)(3)s and the IRS treatment of non-profits. We’ve discussed the tax reform proposals of the 2016 presidential candidates and the #DBCFT. We’ve written several administrative law posts about Treasury Regulations and rulemaking.

Politics aside we’ve also covered other important issues in tax policy—including taxation and poverty, healthcare, tax policy and disabilities, tax compliance, and tax aspects of the Puerto Rico fiscal crisis. We’ve discussed several issues in international and cross-border taxes, touching on the EU state aid debate, the CCCTB, taxation and migration, the Panama Papers, tax leaks more generally, and tax evasion in China.

We hosted our first ever online Mini-Symposium on Tax Enforcement and Administration, which featured posts by ten different authors on a variety of tax administration topics. The Mini-Symposium was spearheaded by Leandra Lederman. Leandra had organized and moderated a discussion group on “The Future of Tax Administration and Enforcement” at the 2017 AALS Annual Meeting, and many of the discussion group participants contributed to the online symposium. We hope to organize future online symposia on other topics.

We’ve blogged about various conferences, workshops, and papers, both tax related and not-so-much tax related. We’ve also had lots of fun writing about taxes in popular culture – Surly bloggers and guest bloggers have written about the tax aspects of Pokémon Go, tax fiction, music-related tax issues (Jazz Fest! Prince! “Taxman”!), soccer players, dogs, Harry Potter fan fiction, Star Trek, and John Oliver. Surly bloggers even recorded a few tax podcasts!

In short, it’s been a busy year, and we’ve had a lot of fun with the Surly platform. We hope you have as well. Going forward, we’re going to keep the blog posts coming. We also hope to draw more regular and guest bloggers and to organize other online symposia.

Thanks for reading!

“Unofficial” Jazz Fest (and Arbitrage, and Licensing, and Taxes)

By: Shu-Yi Oei

blogged on Wednesday about taxes and tax enforcement at Jazz Fest, a.k.a. the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Today’s follow-on post celebrates the phenomenon that I call “unofficial” Jazz Fest.

There’s “official” Jazz Fest, which is what happens after you’ve bought your ticket, gone through security, and are within the confines of the New Orleans Fairgrounds (where the Fest is held). And then there’s “unofficial” Jazz Fest, which is what goes on in the surrounding Fairgrounds neighborhood outside the Fest. [fn.1] As I described in Wednesday’s post, “official” Jazz Fest is a big deal, well organized, and highly regulated. The music programming unfolds on a tight schedule. Only approved food and craft vendors are allowed, and those vendors need to be properly licensed and pay some sort of booth fee in order to sell at Jazz Fest. The organizers exert significant control over the food items sold—the Jazz Fest website says that “‘carnival’ food items or beverages” will be not sold and that duplication of food offerings is minimal.

“Unofficial” Jazz Fest, as I call it, is what happens in the area outside the gates of the Fairgrounds. On Fest days, the neighborhood is transformed into its own unique microclimate of festive Festy-ness. Here, street vendors hawk wares such as hats, kooziessecond-line umbrellas, water, and art. no vending(There are “No Street Vending Allowed” signs posted, but those don’t seem to be given much weight.) Popup brass bands play for tips on the sidewalks. Some neighborhood residents hire bands and throw backyard parties, some of which you can attend for a fee (or, perhaps, crash unnoticed). New Orleans, like many other cities, has business licensing requirements, including mobile vendor licenses, and some of these vendors are clearly licensed, though it’s plausible that others might not be.

Many of these behaviors look like classic arbitrage: You can of course buy or enjoy most of those items or services in the official Jazz Fest, but they’re more expensive once you’re inside the Fairgrounds and committed to being there (general admission tickets allow single entry only). This creates obvious opportunities for unofficial vendors to sell products more cheaply just outside the Jazz Fest entrance gates. So, for example, it gets hot in New Orleans in April/May, and Fest rules allow you to bring in “Factory-sealed bottled water for personal consumption.” Bottled water sells for $3 in the Fest. But there are lots of people selling it out of a cooler for $1 in the surrounding streets, so it really makes sense to buy your water before you enter. From the seller’s point of view, if she buys 78 24-count cases of bottled water from Costco, it comes up to under 27 cents a bottle before tax. The incentive to make dollar-a-bottle sales outside the Fairgrounds on Fest days is obvious.

Others of these activities look like something close to agglomeration:  Continue reading ““Unofficial” Jazz Fest (and Arbitrage, and Licensing, and Taxes)”

The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival (and Taxes)

By: Shu-Yi Oei

New Orleans is currently in the throes of Jazz Fest.

For those of you who don’t know what that is, Jazz Fest—or, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival—is a famous annual festival celebrating music and culture in New Orleans. It’s held at the New Orleans Fairgrounds. It spans seven days over two weekends. It draws hundreds of thousands of people.

But even that description doesn’t do the event justice. There are twelve different music stages and tents set up in the Fairgrounds and a lineup of over a hundred performance groups—this year’s headliners include Stevie Wonder, Pearl Jam, Paul Simon, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Snoop Dogg, and Van Morrison. There’s also a huge number of food and crafts vendors who set up at the Fest—over 200 food offerings sold! Some of us to go to the Fest at least as much for the food as for the music: my personal favorites include the Crawfish Monica, mango freeze, crawfish beignets, seafood stuffed mushrooms, and Chef Linda Green’s award-winning yakamein.

This past weekend, my colleague Ann Lipton and I traipsed down to the Fairgrounds to find the fun. While enjoying performances by Janelle Monáe (amazing), the Red Hot Chili Peppers (meh), Leroy Jones (so good), Herlin Riley (just, wow) and others, we chatted a bunch about vendor licensing and regulation at Fest. We even ran into an on-duty New Orleans revenue agent who was more than happy to tell us all about tax compliance at the Fest and kindly gave permission to blog about it.

After some research, some casual conversations, and some lurking around the food booths, here’s what we now know about Jazz Fest and taxes:

Continue reading “The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival (and Taxes)”

Uber and Lyft Drivers and San Francisco Business Licensing

By: Shu-Yi Oei

As some of you know, Diane Ring and I have written a couple of papers recently about tax and regulatory issues in the sharing economy.

Well, here’s the latest news out of San Francisco: It was reported a few days ago that the San Francisco City Treasurer recently obtained data about the identities of a number of transportation network company (“TNC,” i.e., Uber and Lyft) drivers and has proceeded to send some 37,000 notices to drivers. The notices require those driving for seven or more days in a year to register as a business operating in the city and pay San Francisco’s business registration fee ($91 for those earning $100,000 or less). The Treasurer’s office apparently refuses to say how they got the data, in the interests of taxpayer confidentiality, but in any case, they now have it and are using it to enforce the business registration requirement and fee against TNC drivers operating in San Francisco.

The applicable regulation lives in San Francisco Business and Tax Regulations Code Article 12, sections 853 and 855 of which impose the registration requirement and fee. The registration requirement and fee are imposed on those “engaging in business” in the city, unless exempt, and as far as I can tell, Article 6, § 6.2-12 specifically imposes the regulation on a person who “utilizes the streets within the City in connection with the operation of motor vehicles for business purposes for all or part of any seven days during a tax year.” The move to require registration also seems consistent with the continued position of the TNC companies that their drivers are appropriately classified as independent contractors, as opposed to employees. So unless I’m missing something big, it’s hard to see how the law would not on its face apply to drivers.

Several aspects of this development are interesting:

Continue reading “Uber and Lyft Drivers and San Francisco Business Licensing”