Wealthy Illinois candidates face tax disclosure minefield
Update, Nov. 27: Both JB Pritzker and Chris Kennedy released tax information shortly after filing their nominating petitions.
Pritzker released summaries of his last three years of taxes. They showed adjusted gross income of $14,950,446 in 2016, $9,974,627 in 2015 and $3,137,655 in 2014. His effective tax rates were 27.7 percent (2016), 24.3 percent (2015) and 37.3 percent (2014).
Kennedy released a summary of his 2016 returns showing adjusted gross income $1,242,805 and an effective tax rate of 14 percent.
It’s little surprise Democratic governor candidate Daniel Biss has for months been taunting rivals J.B. Pritzker and Chris Kennedy over their foot dragging on promises to release tax returns. Biss, a state senator, in recent years reports on tax returns he hasn’t cracked $70,000 in annual income while Kennedy’s worth could be in the millions of dollars and Pritzker’s in the billions.
What is less conventional is a parallel attack on Pritzker from the Illinois Republican Party, whose chairman, Cook County Commissioner Timothy Schneider, was hand-picked for the post by Gov. Bruce Rauner, the veteran private equity investor who says his wealth exceeds $500 million.
The Illinois GOP is running an online clock counting to the second the time that has elapsed since Pritzker said he planned to release returns but specified no date. "J.B. Pritzker promised to release his tax returns in April, but no one has seen them," the GOP website declares in bold red letters. "What is Pritzker hiding?"
All of which made for good political theater until Pritzker, and Kennedy too, declared recently they would indeed be releasing tax information by Dec. 4, the deadline to file nominating petitions to compete in the March primary. As the official field of gubernatorial candidates gets settled in the weeks to come -- Nov. 27 is the first day to file petitions; Dec. 11 is the deadline for challenging petitions -- the financial disclosure issue likely will grow in prominence.
The breadth of a what tax information candidates disclose is more revealing than the timing of when they disclose it. That said, a look back at the timing — and substance — of Rauner’s initial financial disclosure as a candidate for governor four years ago shows the Illinois GOP invoked a double standard in its criticism of Pritzker.
And perhaps doubling down on the double standard is the state party’s silence in the face of Republican President Donald Trump’s refusal to release any information about his taxes.
From the day Rauner formally announced his candidacy for governor in June 2013, his vast wealth became a campaign issue for opponents in the Republican primary and for incumbent Democrat Pat Quinn, who was seeking re-election.
Rauner portrayed his wealth as more than a financial asset, but a manifestation of his frugality, judgment and work ethic.
Like both Pritzker and Kennedy now, Rauner was in no rush during his first campaign to release tax information. He finally did so, but not until Nov. 25, 2013, the first day of candidate petition filing for the 2014 election. So the Dec. 4 target date announced by Pritzker and Kennedy puts them roughly on the same trajectory as Rauner four years ago. (Kennedy’s campaign said he will release his financial information before Dec. 4.)
The bigger question is how much information the two Democrats intend to release at that time. So far, neither will say.
To be clear, no candidate is under a legal obligation to divulge any tax information, though it has been increasingly common in recent decades for candidates seeking top state and federal offices, as well as those who win those races, to fully disclose their tax pictures in a show of transparency.
Rauner as a candidate and later as governor has never disclosed his full tax returns but just a sliver of them. His finances are extremely complicated, and the governor’s returns are almost surely fattened by hundreds of pages of forms, schedules and attachments which would detail how he makes his money, where it is invested and the extent of breaks he leverages to lower his tax burden.
But the governor has refused to make public any of that telling detail about his financial picture. Instead, his annual disclosures have been confined to Form 1040, the two-page cover sheet that summarizes his federal tax picture, as well as a corresponding summary document for Illinois taxes.
What Rauner released showed that in 2015, Rauner’s first year as governor, he reported $188 million in adjusted gross income — triple the previous year. His adjusted gross income fell in 2016 to $91 million — still well above what he made before becoming governor.
In 2016, Rauner also paid an effective federal tax rate of 21.6 percent, well below the top 39.6 percent tax bracket that applies to someone of his considerable wealth. It is impossible to fully understand the menu of tax breaks he took advantage of to achieve such a steep discount without being able to review the entirety of his tax return.
A July 2014 report by the Chicago Tribune hinted at a few of the items on that menu:
IRS data show Bruce Rauner to be one of the 11,000 richest tax filers in the nation, but most of the millions he made in recent years was taxed at 15 percent — less than half the top federal rate for the wealthy, a review of tax documents released by the GOP governor hopeful shows.
One reason behind that sharp discount is that Rauner took advantage of a strategy that yielded big tax savings on his share of investment fees paid to his private equity firm, GTCR. That strategy is allowed under tax rules but has come under IRS scrutiny.
The same calculus that led Rauner to withhold from public view the meat of his tax returns now confronts Pritzker and Kennedy. Will they simply match his limited disclosure or opt for something more fulsome, which could score points with some voters but also have a downside?
"Basically, what you're doing when you (release) your taxes is you're opening yourself up to scrutiny, and the more complicated your taxes the more scrutiny the media are going to do and the more scrutiny the opposition research is going to do," said Christopher Mooney, a political scientist at the Springfield campus of the University of Illinois.
"It’s not about the average person going through their 500-page tax form," Mooney said. "The media will find things they feel are ethically or legally dubious and in the case of opposition research, politically dubious."
In 2012, then Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, like Rauner a former private equity investor, did follow the tradition of most presidential candidates and released hundreds of pages from his prior year’s tax return. They showed he paid a low effective tax rate, 14%, and had considerable investments in offshore tax havens.
The revelations provided Democrats with ammunition to criticize Romney, and four years later Trump cited that as one reason he refused to share information about his personal finances. During the 2016 elections, Romney said Trump’s refusal to release his returns suggested the candidate was hiding a "bombshell."
Neither Pritzker nor Kennedy has said how much financial information they plan to release.
"As JB has said, we’re preparing that information and will be releasing (it), along with his financial disclosure form, by the end of the petitions filing period," said Pritzker spokeswoman Galia Slayen. The separate financial disclosure form to which Slayen referred is required of candidates and officeholders in Illinois, but it merely requires them to list the identities of many holdings in their portfolios and not the values of those investments.
Kennedy also has not said how much of his tax information he plans to release. Kennedy’s spokeswoman, Rebecca Evans, said the campaign is "still working through" what will be released.