Oregon Shifts Heavy Equipment Personal Property Tax Burden to Contractors starting in 2019

Large and small heavy equipment rental providers throughout the state of Oregon recently scored a huge victory when Governor Brown signed HB 4139 into law earlier last month.  The new law replaces Oregon’s existing personal property tax system for heavy equipment with a 2 percent tax on every heavy equipment rental transaction starting in 2019. While many states have either eliminated personal property tax or have exempted certain manufacturing and construction businesses from ad valorem property tax, Oregon was one of the few remaining that offered no relief or reform of any kind for heavy equipment rental providers.

Critics often cited the compliance costs associated with the business personal property tax as complex and burdensome in a way that discouraged many companies from accurately reporting. The old system was a location-based tax. This means that a company would be taxed on heavy machinery it owned based on where it was sitting on January 1 of that year. Heavy equipment rental businesses often rent their equipment out all over the state and beyond. Tracking location of constantly moving equipment for tax purposes proved difficult and also created the potential of requiring companies to pay additional tax in multiple counties or states on the same equipment where assessment dates varied.

Under the new law, the location-based tax goes away and now a sales or value-added tax of 2 percent will be collected by the heavy equipment rental business at point-of-sale and remitted to the Department of Revenue. The Department is authorized to use up to 5% of the revenue for administrative costs needed to enforce the tax. The remaining money will distribute out to the local counties based on where each rental transaction occurred. This ensures that the heavy equipment rental businesses have a much simpler system for determining the tax they owe and local counties receive revenue based on the number of heavy equipment rental transactions occur within its borders.

Many surrounding states such as California and Idaho have adopted state and local sales taxes on similar transactions. Supporters of this change say this makes Oregon more competitive in the construction market and will attract more business in general to the state.

According to Section 3 of the new law, every heavy equipment provider will need to register with the Department of Revenue by December 15 of this year to certify that they qualify for the rental tax program and exempt them from the old ad valorem property tax system. The providers will then be required to collect the rental tax on each transaction and file a return each calendar quarter to report the tax due. The change is meant to be revenue neutral, meaning that the amount of monies paid under the new system should equal to what the providers would have been paid under the old system. Section 5 states that any amount paid by a qualified heavy equipment provider that exceeds the old tax threshold will receive a refund in the amount of the excess.

While overall this new change will likely benefit both providers and local counties alike, heavy equipment rental businesses may receive more of a windfall from this change than initially planned. This is a quirk of the Oregon law that is different from other jurisdictions. Based on how the new law is worded, the providers are tasked with merely collecting and ensuring the proper amount of tax is transmitted to the Department of Revenue. The incidence of tax is on the party renting the equipment. So, the renter will remit the new tax to the equipment rental company along with the rental price, and if the amount of tax exceeds the amount “paid” under the old system, then the providers will receive a refund of any excess.

Based on the wording of the new law, it does not appear the Oregon Legislature has thought about this windfall possibility. It remains to be seen whether any modifications to the law will address this potential for abuse. We understand that the Oregon Department of Revenue is currently working on regulations to administer this new assessment.

Valerie Sasaki specializes in jurisdictional tax consulting, working closely with Fortune 50 companies involved in audits before the Oregon or Washington Departments of Revenue. She also works with business owners on tax, business, and estate planning issues in Oregon or Southwest Washington.

Special thanks to guest SYK co-author Nicholas Rogers. Nicholas is a 3L and 2019 J.D. candidate at Lewis & Clark Law School.

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