Buckeye Institute sues state, city of Columbus over income taxes during COVID lockdown


(The Center Square) — A think tank is suing the state of Ohio and the city of Columbus, saying a state law allowing the city to collect income taxes from employees required to work from their homes outside the municipality amid the COVID-19 pandemic is unconstitutional.

The Buckeye Institute and three of its employees – Rea S. Hederman Jr., Greg R. Lawson and Joe Nichols – filed the lawsuit last week in Franklin County Common Pleas Court.

The Buckeye Institute, which required its employees to work from home to comply with a state order mandating nonessential businesses close, is challenging a provision included in House Bill 197. The legislation “deemed” for tax purposes the work that employees did at home “to have been performed” at their primary office.

That meant Hederman, who lives in Powell; Lawson, who lives in Westerville; and Nichols, who lives in Newark Township; paid Columbus’ higher taxes. The think tank argues the law violates Article I, Section 1 of the Ohio Constitution and the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

“The law in this case is straight out of a dystopic novel: the state first prohibited workers from going into their offices during the Stay-At-Home order, then passed an emergency law absurdly ‘deeming’ all work that was actually performed at home to have been performed in the higher-taxed office location instead,” Robert Alt, president and chief executive officer of The Buckeye Institute, said in a statement. “It is a legal fiction, and it is unconstitutional.

“Not only have our employees – along with thousands of others like them across Ohio – had municipal income taxes unlawfully taken from them during the Stay-at-Home order, but The Buckeye Institute also has been forced to participate in perpetrating this constitutional violation, betraying the very principle of limited government that is an essential component of our organization’s mission,” Alt added.

In a statement, Columbus City Attorney Zach Klein questioned whether this was the proper time to file such a lawsuit, but said he could not directly comment on it.

“Our office has yet to be served this complaint, so we’re unfamiliar with the particulars of the case at this time,” Klein said. “However, Columbus – and municipalities across Ohio – have been acting in accordance with the Governor’s order and a bipartisan bill passed by state lawmakers.

“In the middle of an untamed and growing pandemic is not the time to upend decades of precedent to wage a philosophical battle about taxes,” Klein added. “Cities across the state stand to lose a massive amount of tax revenue, and there are real-world consequences affecting how we perform essential functions for millions of Ohioans, including taking care of the sick, feeding hungry children, paving our roads and keeping our community safe.”

A spokesman for Gov. Mike DeWine said he had no comment since “neither the Governor nor the Ohio Department of Taxation was named as a defendant.” A spokesman for the attorney general said they are reviewing the filing.

The lawsuit names Attorney General Dave Yost and Columbus City Auditor Megan Kilgore as defendants.

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Todd DeFeo is a contributor to The Center Square

Todd DeFeo is a contributor to The Center Square