Ohioans lost the right Friday to appeal disputed tax decisions directly to the state’s high court, a scarcely debated policy change that critics say will have sweeping consequences for businesses, individuals and governments.
The Ohio Supreme Court advocated for and defends the change, arguing it was necessary to lighten its docket of a flood of market-driven property tax disputes and to preserve its role as arbiter of the state’s most significant legal questions.
Administrative Director Mike Buenger said the Supreme Court is intended to deal with categories of cases that are of great statewide public importance or of constitutional magnitude.
“We started looking at these cases because there was concern by the court that many of them presented basic disputes over mathematic valuations and calculations, and often little more than that,” he said. “With limited exception, these cases did not present great questions of statewide importance.”
A court analysis found that only 14 of the 152 appeals of Ohio Board of Tax Appeals decisions the court was compelled to accept in 2014 involved matters of law appropriate for the high court’s attention.
Justices took their concerns to the Ohio Senate, which quietly slipped language into the state budget bill signed in June removing the court’s obligation to accept direct tax appeals - an option since 1939 - and sending them through the appellate courts first.
Business groups pushed back, arguing that sending tax appeals through regional appellate courts would add costs, inconsistency and competitive disadvantages to Ohio’s tax system.
“The impact will be extremely negative. Over time, it will erode the uniformity of the tax code in the state of Ohio,” said Tom Zaino, a Columbus tax attorney and former state tax commissioner under Republican Gov. Bob Taft. “It’s going to be equally bad for government as it is for taxpayers.”
Zaino said his business tax clients often have more than one location and eliminating direct Supreme Court appeals will lead to decisions that are applicable in only one part of the state, to some but not all of a business’ properties or to one competitor but not another.