Jerry vs. Meg: Tax Return Standoff

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It appears that, for the first time in more than a quarter century, California voters won't have access to information about the personal finances of their next governor.

And to hear the campaigns of both Jerry Brown and Meg Whitman tell it, it's not that they're refusing to release copies of their tax returns -- rather, that the other side is being unreasonable.

Brown is apparently bringing the issue up today at an event in Los Angeles, but it was his prodding at the issue of Whitman's wealth in Tuesday night's debate that got me to wondering where the issue stands.

"I'd like to ask you, how much money will you save if these tax breaks were in effect this year?" said Brown to Whitman on the subject of her call for eliminating the state's capital gains tax.

AP/Rich Pedroncelli

The Democrat's staffers later distributed a memo to the press that attempts to calculate the multi-million dollar savings for the billionaire Republican.

But the debate dustup notwithstanding, the Great Gubernatorial Tax Return Standoff has been pretty stagnant for months. And while some voters may not see any big deal to candidates refusing to hand over their federal 1040 and state 540 for media inspection, others maintain that an overview of a candidate's finances may at least offer some suggestion about biases, as well as an affirmation that the would-be governor has paid past taxes owed, and in a timely fashion.

The release of tax returns is completely voluntary, but has been something of a tradition in California -- though a tradition without any real rules. A database search of news stories dating back all the way to the 1982 contest between Republican George Deukmejian and Democrat Tom Bradley funds candidates from both parties largely complying with requests to make their tax returns public.

The only gubernatorial candidates who seem to have fully balked at the idea since 1982 were the aforementioned Bradley (when he ran a second time against Deukmejian in 1986) and GOP nominee Dan Lungren in his 1998 campaign against Democrat Gray Davis.

Otherwise, everyone's handed over something. There have occasionally been quibbles about how many years worth of returns, whether the press would be given copies or only a short availability to sit in a room with the returns and take notes, and whether a candidate would release a full return or just a summary.

Wealthy candidates have tended to balk the most at disclosure. GOP nominee Bill Simon would only show one year's worth of returns in the 2002 matchup with Davis. Democrat Al Checchi only offered summary documents in his failed quest for the 1998 Democratic nomination. But then again, some wealthy candidates haven't shied away at all; that includes Democrat Steve Westly in 2006 and Democrat Jane Harman in 1998.

This time around, the press' request to see tax returns ran into a dead end back in April. Jerry Brown agreed to release a decade's worth of tax returns, while Meg Whitman insisted that her rival needed to release returns dating all the way back to when he was governor.

Which created a bit of an asymmetry, as Whitman's actual position was that she would release 25 years worth of returns would require Brown releasing 28 years worth of returns. The Brown camp says that thought that was unfair.

Which is where things stand as of now, with November 2 just around the corner.

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new multimedia California Politics & Government Desk.  He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades -- serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and, most recently, as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. He moderated the only gubernatorial debate of 2014, and was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.
  • yourstruly

    A good reporter would ask this question, John: “Meg, have you ever filed as a nonresident of CA for tax purposes since your employment with Ebay”. You might like the real answer.