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Candidates' Tax Returns Can Answer Important Questions

Some journalists say a glimpse at their tax returns is crucial to getting a true financial picture of a candidate. (401(k)2012/Flickr)
Some journalists say a glimpse at their tax returns is crucial to getting a true financial picture of a candidate. (401(k)2012/Flickr)
August 4, 2016

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has refused to release his tax returns so far, but what could we learn if he did?

Mark Horvit, executive director of the nonpartisan group Investigative Reporters and Editors, says tax forms are one of the best ways to answer some of the most important questions about any candidate, not just Trump.

"Who has influence over them or who they have influence over, where their financial interests lie,” Horvit explains. “And when you look at whether they tend to favor certain things that could potentially directly benefit their income."

Horvit says pushing to see Trump's returns isn't a partisan attack. He says when someone is wealthy and has a number of different income streams, journalists and researchers need those documents to provide the public with a clear financial portrait.

Trump insists there's nothing to see in his tax returns, and says he'll release them as soon as he is finished being audited.

Horvit says one of the first things people look for in a candidate's returns is the tax rate he or she pays. While that's hardly the only thing to see there, he says it is important since the people in office set the tax rates.

"They're in a position to make citizens pay money for government, so I think it's a fair question to ask, 'Are they themselves paying their fair share to the government?'" he points out.

Trump has released a public disclosure form describing his finances in general terms.

Horvit says that's a poor substitute – less detailed and often less legally binding than a tax return. He adds he doesn't buy Trump's argument that he can't release his tax forms because he's being audited.

"It's a little bit hard to understand where he's coming from on that,” Horvit states. “But if there's a real argument to be made there, then how about the most recent year's tax return – last year's, I suppose – for which everything's finished?"

Investigative Reporters and Editors is a professional organization with a mission of improving investigative journalism.

It also operates what Horvit calls the Document Cloud on its website, where a candidate can release documents to the public, without going through a potentially biased news organization.

Mary Kuhlman, Public News Service - OH