Read my lips: No view taxes.
That’s what some candidates in Colorado’s eight-person race for governor, Republican and Democrat, are saying about the prospect of releasing their tax returns before the June 26 primary election.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate. I don’t think it’s relevant,” said Democratic Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne, when asked if she would release the past three years of her tax filings for public view. “I don’t know what relevance it is in a gubernatorial election,” she said.
Before becoming the state’s second-in-command, Lynne, a first-time candidate, was an executive vice president of the Kaiser Foundation Health Plan. She has put $100,000 of her own money into her campaign so far, and was the only candidate who flat-out said she wouldn’t release her taxes when asked by The Colorado Independent.
In Colorado, a candidate for governor is not required by law to release his or her tax returns. In other states, candidates have done so voluntarily. Candidates for governor do have to file personal financial statements, but they don’t show income levels.
Republican Greg Lopez, the former mayor of Parker, said he would have to think about whether to allow a reporter to inspect his tax returns, but also expressed skepticism. “For what purpose?” he asked. “I can understand at the presidential level, but we’re talking about the state level here. So I don’t really know that that really impacts the decisions of voters.”
Other candidates for governor in Colorado said they are more willing to allow voters to see how they handle their personal finances. State and federal tax filings would show who pays these candidates, how much the candidates earn and how much they give to charity, whether they’ve filed taxes late or incurred penalties, and how much they pay in an effective tax rate, among other details.
“No problem,” said former State Sen. Mike Johnston when asked if he would open up the books.
Former State Treasurer and the City of Denver’s ex-CFO Cary Kennedy said she would release her taxes, too, and called on everyone in the race to do the same.
Doug Robinson, a first-time candidate who left his job as an investment banker to run for governor, said he would “absolutely” let the public take a peek at his tax returns. “I think that’s actually something that people are curious about and want to know. What’s the income … what’s their contributions to charity and so on.”
Two wealthy candidates in the race who are self-bankrolling their bids answered with a qualifier.
“If all the other candidates do then I would be happy to,” said Boulder Democratic Congressman Jared Polis, who is one of the richest members of Congress and made much of his money with an Internet greeting card company and ProFlowers. “I don’t want to be the only one.”
Same with Republican Victor Mitchell, a multimillionaire entrepreneur who made bank selling a telecom company he started and who served a term in the state legislature. “It would have to be that everybody releases it,” he said. “What? I’m going to release mine but Walker won’t release his? Well, that sounds like a real fair deal.”
That’s in reference to Walker Stapleton, the current state treasurer who says he put all his assets in a blind trust.
“I’m happy to release my tax returns but not from what’s in the blind trust because that violates the spirit of setting up the trust to begin with,” Stapleton said in an interview. A Stapleton spokesman jumped in to add that the campaign isn’t prepared to say what it would and wouldn’t release. Stapleton, who has trained most of his fire on Polis throughout his campaign, said he is not interested in seeing what’s in his rival’s returns. Responding to the idea that releasing tax returns before an election could illuminate something important, Stapleton said, “I think that’s stupid and dumb and the only people that care about that are political enemies trying to savage somebody for something.”
Beyond his state income from the treasurer’s office, Stapleton said he has “a lot” of passive business investments that are managed by others. “Do I have alternate sources of income? You bet I do,” he said.
In other states, candidates releasing their tax returns have led to major revelations previously unknown. In 2010, when then-state Rep. Nikki Haley was running for the Republican nomination for governor in South Carolina, reporters found in her tax returns that she took tens of thousands of dollars from an engineering company with business before the state legislature— money she did not voluntarily disclose in her ethics reports.
The Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, which fights for open government and transparency, doesn’t have an official stance about whether candidates for governor should release their tax returns. But the group’s director, Jeff Roberts, says he can see several reasons why they should.
“Generally, it’s a statement of transparency, which voters expect from political candidates and officeholders,” he says. “If they don’t release their returns, is there something they don’t want revealed?”
Also, elected officials are stewards of taxpayer money and voters might want to know how they’ve handled their own money, he adds. And there might be details in financial arrangements that raise questions about potential conflicts of interest. “Could the candidate personally benefit from policies he or she promotes as governor?” Roberts asks.
When it comes to the nation’s highest office, Republican President Donald Trump is the only modern commander in chief who has refused to release his tax returns. During the 2016 campaign, he repeatedly declined to do so, breaking with tradition.
Lynne, the candidate for governor in Colorado who was most forceful about not making her three years of taxes public— though she said she would release her 2017 taxes and a schedule of what she has given to charity— said of what might be in Trump’s taxes, “I don’t really care.”
Last month, six candidates for governor in Ohio allowed reporters to view their tax returns as part of the Democratic and Republican primary campaigns. In Maryland, a Democratic candidate for governor and sitting state senator spurred others in this year’s primary to say they would release their taxes after he challenged them to do it.
In Pennsylvania, three of the four candidates for governor— all Republicans— have declined to release their tax returns while the incumbent governor there, Democrat Tom Wolf, said he would allow reporters to view his returns and release the first two pages of his 2017 filing. Kentucky’s incumbent governor, Republican Matt Bevin, is facing criticism for not releasing his individual tax returns— a departure from previous governors there— as a potential rival released his own. Candidates in Michigan’s gubernatorial field this year made available portions of their tax returns, saying, “the public deserves to know the information even though the state does not require candidates to disclose it,” according to The Detroit Free Press.
In Colorado, the governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general, and state treasurer, among other state officeholders, file a document called a “personal financial disclosure statement.” The form asks where their money comes from, what property they own, and who their creditors are if they owe more than $1,000, along with the interest rate— but not how much they owe. It does not require them to disclose how much income they receive.
The form also asks about entities with which they have a financial interest of more than $5,000, a list of their associates who do business with the state, and any additional information they want to disclose. Members of the public can ask the Secretary of State to view these forms under the state’s open records laws.
Jena Griswold, the Democrat running for secretary of state in Colorado, is campaigning in part on her support for a state law that would require presidential candidates to release their tax returns to qualify for the ballot.
“I think people who step into positions of public service have a higher standard of personal transparency than ordinary citizens,” says Ed Bender, director of the Montana-based National Institute on Money in Politics. “They are spending the public’s money, so it seems reasonable that they would want to bend over backward to ensure they have the trust of the people who elected them. Transparency is the best way to communicate that. To think otherwise is, sadly, arrogant. And too common in the current political climate.”