House Chair Says Personal Tax Filings a Private Matter

House Administration Committee Chairman Charlie Geren sent a letter to his House colleagues on Friday saying he would not accommodate a request by The Texas Tribune to release his federal income tax returns, and reminding his fellow lawmakers that they were "under no legal obligation" to do so either.

"I will not be providing mine to them," Geren, R-Fort Worth, wrote in a letter to the other 149 members of the House. "It is up to you as an individual to make this choice." 

Geren's letter came the same day that the Tribune asked him for his last three returns — a request being made of all state lawmakers as part of a legislative transparency project. The Tribune recently began contacting lawmakers, and has not yet received any returns. At least two lawmakers, including the vice chairwoman of Geren's committee, Donna Howard, D-Austin, have said they would turn theirs over. 

In a phone interview, Geren would not go into detail about his personal opposition to the Tribune’s request, but said he thinks it's his "job to keep House members aware of what’s going on.”

“I’m not going to give you mine. That’s all I’ve got to say," he said. "It’s none of your business what my income tax return looks like.”

Howard said in an interview that she took Geren's letter as a general factual memo, and not as a warning. Still, she said she plans to pass along her last three returns to the Tribune. State Rep. Elliott Naishtat, D-Austin, has also agreed to turn over his returns. 

"I’m erring on the side of transparency," Howard said, "because I agree with some who would suggest that our personal financial disclosure forms are not very meaningful, and the [Texas] Ethics Commission has been criticized for not having much in the way of teeth."

In Texas, lawmakers are required to submit a financial statement that lists their properties, stocks, bonds, mutual funds, gifts and sources of income — but not their net worth.

Advocates of government transparency have long argued that full disclosure helps the electorate to better understand the motives and background of people running for public office.

On the national stage, presidential candidate Mitt Romney has fielded intense criticism from his opponents for refusing to share several years' worth of personal income tax returns. Democrats are using this to their advantage, suggesting that Romney, a wealthy businessman and former governor, may have something to hide.

While trying to woo voters on the presidential trail, Gov. Rick Perry and his wife released their 2010 income tax return in October. They have released their previous tax returns as far back as 1987.  

In an interview with reporters last month, Perry said full disclosure is ideal: "No matter who you are or what office you are running for, you should be as transparent as you can be with your tax returns and other aspects of your life so that people have the appropriate ability to judge your background," he said. 

Earlier this year, the four leading Republican contenders for retiring U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison's seat released their federal income tax returns. It was practically a domino effect that started in January with former ESPN broadcaster Craig James’ decision to release his last five tax returns. He called on his opponents to do the same. The tactic worked. Within days, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, former Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert and former state Solicitor General Ted Cruz all released their returns. 

James Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin and a pollster for the Tribune, said it often takes pressure from opponents for lawmakers to do more than the minimum: filling out the state's financial disclosure form. 

“If you look at the history of transparency and lawmaker disclosure in Texas, it would be hard to think of Texas as one of the states that’s been out in front on these practices. So I think there’s not really a culture of disclosure here,” Henson said. “With that said, if you look nationally, for the most part, elected officials have had to be dragged kicking and screaming into disclosure, and I wouldn’t expect anything different here.”

Sherri Greenberg, a former lawmaker and professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, said that unlike national candidates representing a broad constituency, Texas state lawmakers come from small districts and may want to “maintain some privacy,” especially because many file jointly with spouses who do not hold elective office.

“They may already feel like they’re filing their financial disclosures, and they don’t see why there’s a need beyond that,” Greenberg said.

Howard agreed with Greenberg's assessment, saying she initially felt hesitant about providing her returns because it means revealing information about her husband's private law practice. 

"I think for some of us, it’s information about our spouses that they didn’t sign up for when they supported our efforts to run," she said, adding that such scrutiny also comes with the territory of being a public servant. "I think that people should be confident in their elected officials and know that we’re doing the business of the people."

The Tribune will continue to ask lawmakers to provide their last three income tax returns over the next few months. The Tribune plans to make the documents available to the public, and will report on whether individual legislators have refused or agreed to provide the information. 

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