This is one in a series of occasional stories about ethics and transparency in the part-time Texas Legislature.
When a Texas Tribune reporter asked state Rep. Joe Pickett to voluntarily provide his last three tax returns as part of a legislative transparency project, the El Paso Democrat was frank. "It's hard enough being an elected official these days," he said. "I think that's way too much invasion of privacy."
It's a sentiment shared by virtually all of his colleagues.
Of the 180 current members of the Legislature, just two — Reps. James White, R-Hillister, and Elliott Naishtat, D-Austin — provided their tax returns at the Tribune's request. Democratic state Rep. Carol Alvarado, who originally declined to provide her tax returns to the Tribune, released hers in recent weeks as part of a bid for a vacant Houston state Senate seat.
“I answer to 170,000 people back in southeast Texas,” White said. “It’s about transparency. … I am in public life, and this is just some of the things you go through in public life.”
From a transparency standpoint, tax returns are the gold standard: No state officeholder form — specifically the state’s vague personal financial disclosure report — provides the same level of detail on a lawmaker’s wealth, financial holdings, property and sources of income. Tax returns are virtually the only surefire way for the public to see whether elected officials stand to benefit from the legislation they’re passing.
But revealing them is not a prerequisite for holding public office, and it only happens in the most heated campaign matchups.
In the final days of his bid for president, Perry called on his GOP opponent Mitt Romney to reveal his income tax returns “so the people of this country can see how you made your money.” Six months later, he said candidates for public office should be “as transparent as you can be with your tax returns and other aspects of your life.”
But his repeated calls for full disclosure have inspired few in Texas’ Legislature to follow suit.
When the Tribune reached out to all members of the Legislature months ago asking for their tax returns, Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, the House’s influential administration chairman, sent a letter to all of his colleagues reminding them they didn’t need to turn them over — and adding that he wouldn’t be doing it.
In response to the Tribune’s request, most state legislators said they’re not comfortable doing more than what the law requires, though they acknowledged that they’re the ones who write the law.
Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, said there is “enough transparency on the books now,” and freshman Rep. James Frank, R-Wichita Falls, said the existing financial disclosure forms are “sufficient disclosure for the time being.” Rep. Ralph Sheffield, R-Temple, added that the tax returns are “really nobody’s business,” and said “it’s not like we’re running for national office.” Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, said he wouldn’t provide his tax returns but pledged to file legislation to improve the state’s financial disclosure form. “There’s got to be something that’s private,” he said. “I come from a world of, the only thing that’s private is your income tax.”
Several lawmakers let their spouses take the heat. Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, said that after visiting with her husband, who operates a family-owned business, they decided it was “not something he bargained for.” Rep. J.D. Sheffield, R-Gatesville, said, “My wife is uncomfortable with doing that, so we will just stick with the personal finance statement.” Rep. Tim Kleinschmidt, R-Lexington, was more direct: “I have a wife who would kick my butt.”
Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, joked that he would release 12 years of his tax returns when he runs for president. Reps. Phil King, R-Weatherford, and Joe Moody, D-El Paso, said they didn’t want anyone to know how little money they’re making. And freshman Rep. Cecil Bell, R-Magnolia, said he wouldn’t disclose his returns, but that he has nothing to hide.
“I don’t have any offshore account unless I accidentally went swimming with my billfold,” he joked.
State lawmakers are in good company in Washington. Many members of Congress echoed Perry's calls for Romney to release his tax returns. But when the tables were turned and McClatchy Newspapers asked all 535 members to provide their tax returns last summer, the silence was deafening. Just 17 agreed, none of them from Texas.
Julián Aguilar contributed to this article.