An Illinois Independent Tax Tribunal years in the making is up-and-running today. It gives businesses and individuals who have problems with their tax bills a new avenue to get them overturned. Still there are early concerns over who Gov. Pat Quinn has nominated to serve as the tribunal's Chief Administrative Law Judge.
Say a business doesn't agree with how much the state Department of Revenue says it owes in sales taxes. Before, it had two options: fight the tax bill in court (though that costs time and money) or plead the case to the Department of Revenue.
Not anymore. To businesses' delight, that latter option has been replaced. As of the New Year, taxpayers with certain disputes can appeal to a new state independent tax tribunal.
Last month a national survey of state's tax appeals processes elevated Illinois' grade from a D to a B- on account of the tribunal's creation.
But that same Council on State Taxation survey also gave Illinois a demerit, citing a "significant concern" with who Gov. Pat Quinn choose to head the tribunal -- James Conway,who had long been with the U.S. Attorney's Office in Chicago. The report calls Conway's resume "impressive," but says his longtime career prosecuting white-collar crimes raises questions about his impartiality.
It's a concern shared by Carol Portman, who heads Illinois' Taxpayers' Federation.
"We are a little nervous that his many, many years of never seeing anyone except for a pretty serious tax cheat ... will that have ingrained itself into his approach towards people?"
Portman is also concerned about Conway's lack of experience with Illinois' tax law -- a substantial knowledge of which is supposed to be a statutory requirement for the job.
"He has no state tax professional experience," Portman says. "There are a lot of twists and turns and nuances in the state area that you don't see as a federal practitioner."
Portman says she is comforted by Conway's early efforts in setting up the tribunal, and says it's clear he's genuinely trying to do things right.
The Senate will need to vote to confirm Conway; until then his appointment is temporary. That could not happen for months, as the Senate gets 60 legislative session days. In the meantime, Portman says she'll see how it goes.
Conway declined to comment for this story.
In the press release announcing Conway as his nominee, Gov. Quinn said “Taxpayers deserve a fair opportunity at resolving any tax dispute they may have and the independent tax tribunal will do just that,” and that “James Conway’s experience and qualifications make him an excellent choice as the leader of the tribunal and he is committed to serving the people of Illinois.”
On Christmas Eve, Quinn appointed a second, associate judge to the tribunal: Brian Barov, who insiders say as an Assistant Attorney General has substantial knowledge of state tax laws.
The tribunal will not hear local property tax disputes; there's a separate state appeals board for that.