Personal tax records have become an unlikely issue for the candidates in this year’s gubernatorial primary.
Democratic candidate Roy Barnes made 25 years of his tax returns available on his campaign website in May, calling on fellow candidates to do the same.
Republican nominee Nathan Deal posted his own records online Thursday, following a storm of ads and a web petition from Barnes’ campaign calling on him to do so.
But other political hopefuls around the state haven’t had to make the same revealing disclosures.
“They certainly have no obligation to do so,” said Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia. “This is very personal. Most of us don’t step up and say, ‘here’s my financial history.’”
Bullock said releasing tax returns is a relatively new phenomenon that has become more common for candidates over the last 10 to 15 years.
“It creates an image of openness, that I have nothing to hide,” Bullock said. “Voters like openness. They tend to be repelled by the notion that decisions are made in secret behind closed doors.”
Mary Boyle, a spokeswoman for Common Cause, a nonpartisan citizen’s lobbying organization that promotes open government, said tax returns provide voters with important information.
“A campaign is like a job interview. It’s fair to expect the person who wants to be the CEO of the state would want to give voters an idea of what their own financial house looks like,” Boyle said.
Boyle said in an ideal world, all candidates would disclose this information, though most do not.
“It’s a tradition, certainly for say, the president and the vice president,” Boyle said. “We think it’s an important tradition not only at the federal level but at the state level that should continue.”
Bullock said if one candidate discloses, it immediately becomes an issues for the others in the contest.
“Once one candidate does, and that candidate makes an issue of it, they imply that ‘I am honest because I’ve released mine and my opponent hasn’t and therefore must have something to hide,’ which is very much the ad that Roy Barnes was running. It puts an awful lot of pressure on the other candidate to follow suit,” Bullock said.
Bullock said most commonly, people will look to see how much a candidate brings in each year.
“To the extent that we have any class warfare in a campaign, then a candidate who releases returns showing he or she has lots and lots of money, that might be a detriment,” Bullock said.
Voters may also look at financial disclosure forms if someone has been in office before.
“The voter might have some concern if it looks like the candidate has used a position he or she has held in the past to enrich themselves,” Bullock said.
But overall, few are likely to inspect the hundreds of pages of tax documents.
“When these are posted online, my guess is not one voter in 1,000 looks at them,” Bullock said. “That’s why most of us hire someone to do our tax returns; because we don’t feel that we can make our way through the IRS jargon.”
But Boyle said making the information available is what’s important.
“In this age of transparency with the Internet, it’s the wrong direction to be withholding more from voters,” Boyle said.