By: David J. Herzig
Everyone knows by now the dire financial problems facing Puerto Rico. (My co-blogger Shu-Yi Oei wrote about the default in Surly here.) In order to generate liquidity to pay debt and run government operations, Puerto Rico began to look to the deepest pockets for help. If you are looking for a deep pocket, look no further than Walmart. The question facing Puerto Rico was how to get more money out of Walmart without actually targeting the corporation (that would be unconstitutional.)
The territory, instead, tinkered with an old law to created a tax hikes which on the face seemed neutral. However, the law, according to Walmart, targeted primarily the large retail corporation. The after-tax effect of the corporate alternative minimum tax change was to raise Walmart’s Puerto Rican tax liability to over 90% of its income.
How did we get here? Last year, Puerto Rico enacted Act 72-2015 (Act 72) into law. The key component of the act was an increase in the Tangible Property Component (TPC) of the corporate AMT. According to prior reporting, “The TPC piece of the AMT imposes a tax on the value of property transferred to an entity doing business in Puerto Rico from a related party outside of Puerto Rico.”
Then last December, Walmart filed suit styled, Wal-Mart Puerto Rico Inc. v. Zaragoza-Gomez, 15-cv-3018, U.S. District Court, District of Puerto Rico (San Juan) challenging Act 72. According to Walmart, the tax was unconstitutional violating the commerce clause. Moreover, the new tax raised the company’s estimated income tax to “an astonishing and unsustainable 91.5% of its net income.”
In March of 2016, the District Court agreed with Walmart and in a 109 page opinion stated, “Puerto Rico’s AMT, on its face, clearly discriminates against interstate commerce.” Part of the story told by bond holders, is that in the course of the trial, it came to light the government of Puerto Rico might have been misleading their bond holders and this law was a kind of hail-mary. Per the UBS report, “In the course of the trial, senior officials of the García administration were obliged to provide sworn testimony. Judge Fusté’s subsequent written opinion provided information that had been either knowingly or inadvertently withheld from investors by the Government Development Bank.” So, yes, the tax was targeted at Walmart. Also, the government of Puerto Rico was also not disclosing to its bond holders the true economic conditions.
Late last week, the 1st Circuit agreed with the District Court. The 1st Circuit concluded, “As to the merits of the Commerce Clause challenge, the AMT is a facially discriminatory statute that does not meet the heightened level of scrutiny required to survive under the dormant Commerce Clause.”