Are Broadband Grants Taxable?

Casey Lide of Keller & Heckman wrote a recent blog that warns that federal grant funding might be considered as taxable income by the IRS. This would be a dreadful outcome for any taxable entity that receives the grant funding since it would create a huge tax liability that would have to somehow be covered outside of the grant funding. This would not affect just the big telcos and cable companies but also the many small telephone companies and cooperatives which are also taxable.

This is not a new issue. There were a lot of questions about federal grants being taxable in 2009 when the NTIA awarded BTOP and BIP grants that were the result of the stimulus spending that came out of the recession. The IRS eventually declared a ‘safe harbor’ for those grants, meaning that it agreed to not tax the grant funding. But the threat of possible taxation stopped many of my commercial clients from pursuing those grants in 2009.

Lide points out that the IRS has always presumed that grant funding is income to the entity receiving the grant and is taxable. Consider a common type of federal grant such as when a research lab gets a grant to pay for the salaries of researchers. Such a grant has always been considered to be taxable income to the lab. The research lab doesn’t worry about this because when it spends that money for salaries, the expenses are deductible from the income, and the lab doesn’t incur any net tax liability. This is one of the reasons that this kind of grant is often awarded each fiscal year to give the grant recipient a chance to spend the grant money in the year the income is received.

But grants given to build infrastructure are different. If a corporation accepts a $10 million grant to build fiber, it cannot expense the fiber immediately to offset the income from the grant. IRS rules have always insisted that hard assets are written off over the economic life of the asset using depreciation expense. I haven’t checked lately, but the IRS suggested tax life for fiber has been set at 25 years, meaning that one-twenty-fifth of the cost of the fiber is recognized as an expense each year over 25 years.

In this example, the corporation that accepted the $10 million grant would be saddled with a $10 million revenue and only be able to wipe out a small portion of it in the first year using depreciation. That would create an instant federal tax liability of 21% on the difference between the grant and one year of offsetting depreciation expense, plus whatever state incomes taxes would be owed. The corporation could not use the grant funds to cover the tax liability – grant money can only be used to build infrastructure. The corporation would eventually see the benefit of depreciation on future taxes, but that relief would be glacially slow over 25 years – it would not stop them from having to write a big check to the IRS this year.

Lide points out the way that the IRS got around this rule with the 2009 grants. There was a legal case in the 1950s, Brown Shoe Co., Inc. v Commissioner where the courts rules that grant funding received by a shoe company for keeping their factory operating was not taxable since none of that money was used to enrich the owners of the business. The IRS was able to make this same determination with the BTOP and BIP grants because, by definition, none of the money was used to enrich the owners of corporations since it was all spent to build infrastructure.

Lide believes that there have been changes in the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act that might make it impossible for the IRS to make that same ruling for current federal grants. Congress could have avoided this issue by explicitly saying that the new grants aren’t taxable – but that’s not in the various laws.

This is very distressing news for a corporation that has already accepted grant funding from the CAREs Act or from ARPA funds because they might be facing an unexpected tax liability. I know cooperatives and telephone companies that have already accepted some of these funds and who will be shocked if this interpretation holds to be true. One of the problems we have currently in dealing with these kinds of issues is that the IRS is running several years behind and won’t have yet dealt with a tax return from a corporation receiving recent the latest infrastructure grants.

As a further word of warning, this same issue would apply to anybody accepting state infrastructure grants. A state would have to take positive action to forgive the grant from state income taxes, but that would not shield state grant revenue from federal tax liability. Any taxable entity that has already received CAREs or ARPA funding, or anybody thinking about taking ARPA or BEADs funding to reach out to legislators on the issue. It may turn out that Congress might be the only one who can fix this – they certainly didn’t intend for anybody building rural broadband to incur a huge tax penalty. If this doesn’t get resolved, many of the carriers who are planning on using grants to solve the rural broadband gap might have to drop out of the pursuit of grants.

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