FILE - Supreme Court of Ohio

The Thomas J. Moyer Ohio Judicial Center, home of the Supreme Court of Ohio and other offices of the judicial branch.

Ohio taxpayers have lost their right to appeal decisions of the Board of Tax Appeals (BTA) directly to the state Supreme Court, but supporters of the new policy say it will make the judicial system run more efficiently overall.

A state budget bill signed by Gov. John Kasich over the summer contained the little discussed provision ending the right of taxpayers to appeal tax board rulings directly to the state’s highest court. Such appeals will now be routinely sent to one of the state’s 12 appellate courts, but they can still be brought to the high court’s attention under the new process, according to Ohio Supreme Court spokesman Edward Miller.

“A party can seek review in a court of appeals and at the same time request that the Supreme Court transfer the case for its review because of new or unique issues,” Miller told Watchdog.org.

A spike in tax board appeals to the state Supreme Court prompted this year’s legislative action, but business groups and the Ohio Society of CPAs fought the change. In a letter sent to lawmakers over the summer, the groups argued that the cost of appealing tax cases would increase because of the addition of another layer of court review.

The new policy would apply tax law differently around the state because rulings by appellate courts only apply to a single judicial district, the letter said.

“Different courts of appeals may decide important tax issues in different ways,” the letter said. “As a result, taxpayers with plants in two different Ohio jurisdictions could have those plants taxed differently.”

The Ohio Society of CPAs will continue to urge lawmakers to reverse the policy change, according to Gregory Saul, the society’s director of tax policy.

“It’s something that we’re going to advocate for,” Saul told Watchdog.org, adding that the previous policy had been in place for 75 years.

The new policy was inserted into legislation with little warning to stakeholders, he said.

“It was done in the context of the budget bill,” Saul said. “It was late in the process, so there was only one week for us to react to this change.”

The new procedure will promote inconsistency in Ohio’s system of taxation, according to Saul.

“You could potentially have a dozen different interpretations after the BTA,” he said.

The Ohio Board of Tax Appeals is a venue for the resolution of state and local tax disputes. Taxpayers, businesses and government bodies all have access to the BTA, which is considered a quasi-judicial agency.

Opponents of the new policy acknowledged that the high court had been facing an increasing number of tax cases in recent years, but they urged alternative solutions, such as a greater emphasis on mediation and providing more funding to the tax board so it could make more thoughtful decisions.

Uneven tax policy in Ohio could damage the state’s overall economic competitiveness, according to the Ohio Chamber of Commerce. The chamber has also argued that eliminating direct appeals to the Supreme Court on such tax matters would increase litigation costs.

“Your business could operate two facilities in two different places and have those operations taxed differently,” the chamber said on a blog post on its website.

Jeff McClain, the chamber’s director of tax and economic policy, said the organization’s purpose in challenging the policy change was to ensure that chamber members throughout the state received a fair shot at resolving tax issues. Litigation costs will increase and law firms will profit from the new policy, he said, and McClain doesn’t see a clear path to getting the policy reversed.

“Whether or not we’re going to get it changed, that’s not necessarily a slam dunk, obviously …” he told Watchdog.org. “I really don’t foresee a real push to get it litigated. It’s going to be up to individuals.”

But Miller sees the new policy as paralleling how the high court decides most other cases. The court typically uses discretion to ensure that the cases it accepts have clear questions with statewide implications or issues dealing with the state constitution.

“What was happening was a lot of questions of valuations of local property were coming directly here,” Miller said. “So the court wasn’t really deciding the major issues. They were deciding a back-and-forth between a taxing authority and a local business or organization.”

Tax cases that present new legal issues, or those that the appellate courts do not agree on, would still eventually reach the Ohio Supreme Court, he said.

“What the court no longer will be dealing with are those cases that either involve the application of settled law or involve factual disputes over such issues as property valuation, both of which are more appropriately handled by relevant courts of appeals,” Miller said.