Sanders is only Comptroller Candidate to Release Tax Returns
In a state where efforts to improve elected officials' financial disclosure have been repeatedly left on the table, nearly four-fifths of the candidates currently vying for statewide office either did not respond to a Texas Tribune request to release their tax returns or declined to provide them.
Of the 48 statewide candidates across three parties who have filed for or say they are running for major statewide office — governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, comptroller, land commissioner, agriculture commissioner and railroad commissioner — 10 released their last three tax returns at the Tribune's request.
State officials are not required to disclose their tax returns to hold public office, and some candidates said they prefer to withhold the documents because they believe the contents are private.
"The release of tax returns is a very private and personal matter, and in today’s climate I and many others wonder whether it is advisable, on many levels, or a compelling public interest," said Tom Pauken, a Republican gubernatorial candidate who declined to release his tax returns.
But in light of the state's lax financial reporting rules for lawmakers and candidates, ethics reform experts say tax returns can give the public a clearer picture of politicians' personal interests, including general wealth, sources of income and financial holdings that could potentially sway their political decisions.
At the top of the ticket, both Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott and Democratic state Sen. Wendy Davis of Fort Worth disclosed their tax returns to the Tribune — on trend with Gov. Rick Perry, who released his own tax returns during previous gubernatorial bids. Republican candidate Lisa Fritsch was the only other gubernatorial candidate to disclose her tax returns.
Among the Republican candidates for lieutenant governor, one of the most heated primary battles this cycle, current incumbent David Dewhurst and Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples were the only candidates to release their most recent tax returns; Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson and state Sen. Dan Patrick of Houston both declined. Dewhurst previously released his tax returns as part of his failed bid for U.S. Senate in 2012, and spokesman Travis Considine said the lieutenant governor has "reaffirmed his commitment to transparency at all levels of government by repeatedly making available his personal tax returns, details of his business investments, and stock holdings.”
The campaign of San Antonio state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, the only Democrat in the lieutenant governor's race, said she intends to release her returns but could not provide them by the Tribune's deadline.
In the race for attorney general, no candidates provided their returns.
Republican George P. Bush was the only candidate for land commissioner to respond to the Tribune’s request, and he declined. Two other candidates didn't respond, and a third couldn't be reached.
The four Republican candidates in the race for agriculture commissioner declined to release their tax returns, with J Carnes choosing to withhold them for now for what his campaign called "strategic reasons.” The Democrat in the race, Kinky Friedman, said he couldn’t provide his tax returns until next week because he’s traveling. Libertarian candidate Rick Donaldson claimed he had no tax returns to release because he hadn’t “made enough money to file tax returns since the 1990s.”
In the comptroller's race, Libertarian Ben Sanders was the only hopeful to provide tax returns. A spokesman for Rep. Harvey Hilderbran, R-Kerrville, said his campaign “intends to release tax returns but will do so on our own timetable.”
Republican Wayne Christian said he didn’t think it was fair for him “to set a new standard” by disclosing his tax returns, which is not required by law, in the event it might spur other candidates to do something they weren't comfortable with.
Some candidates agreed to let the Tribune view their tax returns but declined to provide a copy that could be released publicly. Those included Ryan Sitton, a Republican running for railroad commissioner, who said publishing his returns would be “disproportionately invasive" because it might reveal confidential information about other people, including employees at the company he runs. Patterson, who is running for lieutenant governor, has previously offered to show his filings to the Tribune. Eric Opiela, who is running for agriculture commissioner, also offered to let the Tribune view his returns on the condition that they wouldn't be published.
State ethics laws require officeholders and candidates to file personal financial disclosure reports. But the reports have been criticized for offering too many reporting loopholes that don’t easily identify possible conflicts of interest.
Fred Lewis, an ethics reform activist and Democratic Austin attorney, acknowledged that releasing tax returns poses a privacy concern for some candidates. But he said full financial disclosure should be a requirement of all individuals seeking control of powerful state offices.
“Legislators have interest in financial privacy,” he said. “But the public has interest in financial disclosures because they want to make sure they don’t have conflicts of interests.”