Hurricane Maria Delivered the Injury to Puerto Rico, But New Tax on Foreign IP Delivered the Insult
The year 2017 proved to be a difficult one for the territory of Puerto Rico. Even before Hurricane Maria hit in September of that year, the island was in trouble. By the end of year, the economy was predicted to shrink back to levels not seen since 2000, the average household income was a mere $19,350, one-half that of Mississippi, the poorest state in the nation. Meanwhile, the cost of living in San Juan, Puerto Rico’s capital, was 11.6% higher than in an average U.S. metropolitan area. The government was already dealing with $74 billion in bond debt and another $49 billion in unfunded pension obligations, with U.S. banks taking at least $1 billion to manage its bond sales. In the fall of 2017, after Maria hit head on as a Category 4 hurricane that caused catastrophic damage, the second blow to Puerto Rico was brewing—this time in Washington. The Republicans, being in control of the House, Senate, and the White House, drafted a tax reform bill that proposed the biggest change to the tax code in 30 years. Within that tax bill was a provision that was predicted to decimate what is left of Puerto Rico’s remaining economy. The tax bill proposed, and ultimately the President signed into law, a provision that levies a 12.5% tax on profits derived from foreign-owned intellectual property. This hits Puerto Rico in two ways. First, Puerto Rico has a complicated taxation relationship with the United States. Its citizens do not pay federal income taxes, although they do pay into Social Security. However, when it comes to taxation, the IRS considers Puerto Rico to be a foreign country. Thus, any profits derived from intellectual property in Puerto Rico would be considered foreign profits subject to the excise tax. The second problem is that Puerto Rico derives a great deal of its revenue from the manufacturing of prescription drugs, representing the very profits from intellectual property contemplated in the law. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, pharmaceuticals account for 72% of Puerto Rico’s 2017 exports, which was valued at $11.5 billion.