GREENSBORO, N.C. (WGHP) – North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper has filed his income tax return. So have most of the men who have said they might want his job starting in 2024.
We mention this because today is tax day, a focal point in the debate that has raged widely these past few years: Should top elected officials and candidates for those offices be required to release their tax returns?
You may recall that presidential candidates annually released their returns – not necessarily before tax date but soon after – all the way back to former President Richard Nixon’s 1969 return. Franklin D. Roosevelt also released his returns from 1913 to 1937. President Joe Biden may have released more returns than H&R Block.
But that ended when former President Donald Trump never fulfilled his promise to do so, although an order by the Supreme Court in November released six years of his returns to Congress. Those returns were opened to the public in December.
Along with that release, the House also passed legislation to require the IRS to release the returns of presidents, but that tradition of transparency – and it is untested legislation in a few states – has extended to governors’ mansions in a very haphazard manner.
Cooper has released an income statement this year as he has every year since taking office in 2016, but those who might succeed him in 2024 have a mixed response to questions about the idea or how they might view this option.
Among the five confirmed or highly likely candidates to seek a run for governor next year, only three disclosed their tax status or expressed opinions about the issues. The two who did not both already hold state office, and at least one has had a sketchy history of tax payments.
That would be Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, the state’s highest-ranking Republican, who last year was found to be behind on some property taxes in Guilford County, where he and his wife make their home. He also has faced federal and state liens against unpaid tax bills.
A spokesperson for Robinson, who is widely expected to fulfill the foregone conclusion that he will run for governor during a rally Saturday in Alamance County, didn’t respond to several emails from WGHP seeking answers to questions.
Neither did the spokesperson for the only confirmed Democratic nominee, Attorney General Josh Stein, whose office is responsible for enforcing tax laws. Representatives from the state Democratic and Republican parties did not respond, either.
But a confirmed GOP candidate, state Treasurer Dale Folwell, did offer his position, as did another presumed Republican possibility, former U.S. Rep. Mark Walker of Greensboro, and the Libertarian candidate, Gaston County financial adviser Mike Ross.
Those queries to Cooper and the candidates asked whether they had met the tax filing deadline, whether they would release their returns and how they in general viewed the idea that returns by top candidates should be made public.
“Yes, the Governor has filed his taxes,” Jordan Monaghan, Cooper’s deputy communications director, wrote in response to WGHP’S query. “Additionally, each year, the Governor files a Statement of Economic Interest that shows sources of income and ownership interests which can be viewed through the NC State Ethics Commission website. These are filed by April 17th, and this year’s should be posted soon.”
Folwell, the state treasurer since 2017 who announced in March that he would seek the GOP nomination to succeed Cooper, is a CPA by trade, and he said late last week that he was “filing by Monday.”
“I file an SEI and insider trading form,” Folwell wrote to WGHP. “I have never thought about releasing [the returns] but will think on it.”
That’s similar to the response of another Republican who has said he is considering a run, Walker.
“Well, I am not a declared candidate, but if we do engage and, if other candidates are in agreement, I’d be happy to share bottom line numbers on taxes paid – state and federal, charitable giving, etc.,” Walker told WGHP.
“I always do my taxes. To be exact, I’ve only used two accountants in three decades, and I’ve never been delinquent on any of my federal or state taxes. Before I agree to release prior years’ returns, I need to make a final decision on our political path forward; but I’m not opposed to it.”
Ross, the Libertarian who also announced his candidacy last month, “has filed his income taxes by the deadline this year and every year (including extensions, required payments, and filing by the later deadline, as applicable sometimes) – noting that he does so under protest of the legitimacy of the government stealing your money arbitrarily,” Rob Yates, his spokesperson, told WGHP.
“Mike has no problem providing his tax returns, and further he believes in complete and utter transparency in government. That being said, we do not have plans to release them at this time, simply because we believe that it could create an unnecessary distraction for a burgeoning campaign.
“Should tax returns become an issue, and the need arises to release them, we would do so immediately. Otherwise, the plan is to release his tax returns for the tax year 2022 and 2023 at the conclusion of the first debate between the Republican, Democrat, and Libertarian candidates.”
And those positions and openness can be important in how voters understand a candidate’s record.
“Any aspect of a candidate’s successes and failures should be open for voters to consider,” Eric Heberlig a professor at UNC-Charlotte and expert on campaign finance, wrote in response to questions from WGHP. “Financial issues may be important to some voters; career issues may be important to others. Some are only concerned with parties or issue positions.
“There are lots of different potential considerations and voters figure out how to weigh them relative to each other.”
Robinson, a native of Greensboro and former student at UNC-Greensboro, and his wife, Yolanda Hill, last year were discovered by WRAL in Raleigh to owe $1,271.33 in vehicle property taxes in Guilford County, a mistake that Robinson said came about because of a change of address. Guilford County Tax Assessor Ben Chavis confirmed to WRAL that Robinson paid the bills within 48 hours after he learned of them.
“When you start talking about taxes, if I’m the guy doing them, somebody’s going to jail,” Robinson told WRAL. “I’m not very good at math.”
Robinson, whose failed childcare business with Hill had led to personal bankruptcy filings, court records showed, also paid off federal and state tax liens that totaled about $15,000, which ended in 2012. “Any outstanding issues we might have had with the IRS have been taken care of,” he told The News & Observer in 2020.
Robinson is in his first elected position after rising to prominence when making a fiery speech about gun shows at a meeting of the Greensboro City Council. With some assistance from Walker, that clip on YouTube went viral, and he rode to fame on those millions of views, a strong affiliation with the National Rifle Association and a talent for gaining attention with Trumpian attacks on almost every social group in both speeches and social media.
“I presume he says that [about math] because many voters also think they are bad with math,” Heberlig said. “The challenge here is that developing and implementing the state government budget is one of the governor’s core responsibilities.
“The governor certainly has an expert budget staff to help with their math, but most people also wouldn’t want the governor to treat budget issues cavalierly.”
Said Robinson to WRAL: “I now have a responsibility to the people who voted me into this office to show some restraint and to show, quite frankly, some leadership. We intend to do that. Those lessons that I learned in the past help me to maintain that.”
But other than those comments, his views toward releasing his tax returns are unknown, and his spokesperson didn’t respond to those questions in repeated emails.
Is this idea common?
In 2017, NC Sen. Jay Chaudhuri (D-Wake) filed a bill titled “Tax Returns Uniformly Made Public Act,” which was the “T.R.U.M.P. Act,” matching legislation filed in several other states. Senate Bill 587 referred only to candidates for president and vice president – the last three vice presidents released their returns, as did the candidates for both those offices back until at least 2008 – who would appear on the ballot in the General Election, requiring them to release their federal tax returns. The bill passed a first reading and went to the Rules Committee, where it died.
Chaudhuri didn’t respond to questions about that bill, but it didn’t address candidates for state office. Heberlig said that he hadn’t heard about state proposals for candidates for governor to release their tax returns.
“Because of the political context, Democratic states would be more likely to have such proposals as viable agenda items,” Heberlig said. “I don’t know how many states have similar laws already. Such ethics laws tend to be passed in the wake of past scandals in the state. Some states may also have passed them in the Watergate era when there was a wave of ethics and campaign finance reform legislation.”
In 2012, Republican Pat McCrory, a former Duke Energy executive and mayor of Charlotte who then was involved in a successful campaign for governor, declined to release his returns, saying they were “my private records.”
“IF wouldn’t ask you to release your records to be a newsperson either,” McCrory told WWAY-TV. “Listen: I own a house, 2,600-square-foot house. My wife and I own two used cars. Both are over 10 years old. They are paid for.
“I have a 401k, and I have no pension. I own no other land. I wish I had some land here in Wilmington and on Wrightsville Beach or something, but I don’t. That’s my wealth. That’s it. I’m not independently wealthy.”
And, as Heberlig said, that approach varies from state to state. Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat in a state controlled by Republicans, made a social media announcement on Monday that he had released his returns.
“The entire time I have served in elected office, I have worked to be transparent with Kentuckians and to earn their trust,” Beshear posted on his Twitter account, “which is why I have released my tax returns for the seventh straight year. I challenge all public officials to do the same.”
Beshear was attorney general from 2016 to 2019 and then elected governor. He is seeking re-election in November.
A Republican governor recently re-elected and who might campaign for another office soon, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, released two years of federal tax returns in 2018, when he first ran for governor. Governors and candidates in Florida have done so historically, but it’s unclear whether DeSantis repeated that release for re-election last year.
Another sitting governor, California’s Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, was facing a recall election in May 2021 when he released his tax return for 2019.
Newsom two years earlier had signed a somewhat controversial legislation that required presidential and gubernatorial candidates to release five years of tax returns to have their names appear on the California primary ballot. The state Republican Party sued to stop the legislation, and the California Supreme Court struck down the part of the law that applies to presidential candidates.
Jerry Brown, another Democrat who had preceded Newsom, had vetoed similar legislation in 2017. NRP reported that he “expressed concerns about the constitutionality of the requirement. He also said it could create a ‘slippery slope.’”
‘More sunshine’ in NC?
Folwell said that “I’m generally in favor of more sunshine, and it’s the reason I’ll be there best gov money can’t buy.”
Yates, speaking on behalf of Ross, takes that quite a bit further. “Without transparency, it is impossible to hold elected officials accountable. Mike begrudges no one income of any amount, provided it is earned honestly, thus he is ambivalent in terms of disclosing pure income, as he doesn’t believe anyone should have the amount of money s/he makes held against him/her,” Yates said. “He does believe in the transparency afforded the voters when candidates disclose their tax filings and he also believes that no one is above the law, especially the laws they create. So, until such a time as income taxes are eliminated, or become so simple that there is no concern about cheating, Mike supports candidates disclosing their tax filings.
“Mike also wants to specifically highlight that, as governor, he would make his entire filing history public record. Further, he would put all of his holdings into an unmanaged index fund, and would not trade in any stocks, derivatives, or related securities asset classes of any sort the entirety of the time he was in office.”
Walker served the 6th Congressional District for three terms (2014-19), during which he was chair of the Republican Study Committee, and lost in a primary for U.S. Senate last spring.
“I believe being transparent is crucial in making sure candidates’ rhetoric is consistent with how they live their own lives,” Walker said. “The very basis of someone’s character is honoring one’s financial obligations.
“As a conservative, how can you lead on fiscal responsibility, if you can’t manage your own finances? Hardships can occur but if someone has a long history of defrauding people and institutions, they wouldn’t be allowed to serve on a church finance committee, much less be considered a candidate for governor.”