O'FALLON, Ill. (AP) — In his quest for the White House, Mitt Romney has ignored Democrats' demands that he disclose more of his tax returns. With his eyes on southern Illinois' soon-to-be-open congressional seat, the GOP's Jason Plummer finds himself in the same corner.
Two years after refusing to publicly reveal his returns during a failed bid for the lieutenant governorship, the affluent executive with his family's lumber company again is rebuffing a Democratic opponent's insistence that he open his tax documents to scrutiny. The Democrat, former Illinois National Guard chief Bill Enyart, says Plummer owes it to voters to demonstrate transparency.
Not legally obligated to make such disclosures, Romney and Plummer submit that demands for them to offer up their tax returns are purposeful distractions from more pressing issues, such as job creation. But such a stand carries a risk, including the prospect of alienating voters who may wonder what's behind the perceived secrecy.
"The whole purpose of disclosure is to allow voters to see where your real interests lie," said David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. "If you own a lot of stock in a defense contractor, people should have the right to know that before you start voting on defense appropriations."
Yet Yepsen doesn't believe the clamor about taxes has much traction in the race for Illinois' 12th Congressional District, which stretches from the St. Louis suburbs to the southernmost tip of the state and has been represented for more than two decades by the retiring Rep. Jerry Costello.
"Is this politically harmful and changing the race? The answer is no," Yepsen said. "If there's an indication the candidate has or is doing something wrong, that's one thing. But if you're just trying to make a wealthy challenger look bad, I don't think it resonates."
Plummer is banking on that. Like Romney, he has filed a financial disclosure report — a document required of anyone seeking federal office — that's far less detailed than tax returns, which spell out charitable contributions and tax shelters. But Plummer figures that should suffice.
That report, filed in July to the U.S. House's clerk's office and later detailed by the (Carbondale) Southern Illinoisan newspaper, lists Plummer's salary as vice president of R.P. Lumber at $55,289, with assets of $6.17 million to $16.83 million and liabilities ranging from $3.6 million to $16.5 million. Included in the assets' value are companies Plummer partly or entirely owns.
Plummer cautioned that the value of the assets does not take into account overhead costs or expenses.
Enyart already has released a decade of tax returns and challenged Plummer to do the same, arguing that "the people you hire to write your tax policy, to write your budgets, must be open and transparent about their interests in that tax policy."
"The only way for that to happen is for candidates to publicly release their tax returns," Enyart said.
Last year, the adjusted gross income of Enyart and his wife, retired St. Clair County Circuit Judge Annette Eckert, was more than $380,020. They paid a combined $104,864 in federal taxes and sought a $9,584 refund for taxes they overpaid.
Plummer considered Enyart's release of tax documents no surprise, insisting that because the retired major general and his wife were paid with public money, their tax information already was in the public record.
So what's Plummer's issue with releasing his tax returns? He says such disclosures also would reveal financial details about his private business partners and detract from the real issues facing the district's constituents. He called the demand "a sideshow."
Plummer did the same during his 2010 run for lieutenant governor, saying releasing his tax returns would put his family business at a competitive disadvantage and that a candidate's basic financial information shouldn't matter to voters.
"If I start giving people crumbs, no one is ever going to be satisfied," Plummer said.
Dogged by the issue now, he says he's frustrated that taxes — not issues — are getting so much attention.
"My opponent seems a lot more concerned about my income than the lack of income of the thousands of families throughout southern Illinois," Plummer said in a statement emailed to The Associated Press.
Plummer is anything but alone among members of Congress in taking that stand.
A recent McClatchy News Service report revealed that only 17 of the 535 members of Congress publicized their most recent tax forms or provided similar documentation in response to requests from McClatchy over the past three months. An additional 19 Congress members said they would not release the information, while the remainder never responded.
Some congressional leaders draw distinctions over who should reveal their taxes. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has joined even some Republicans in pressing Romney to put more of his tax returns on the table, citing "custom" and "tradition" in the interest of transparency. But she says she isn't about to hand over her own returns.
"When I run for president of the United States, you can hold me to that standard," the Democrat told reporters earlier this month.
The resistance is by no means partisan, either. The House's top Republican, House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, argues that neither presidential candidates nor members of Congress should have to cough up their tax records.
"I've never released my tax returns. That's my private business just like it's your own private business," he said.
Romney, with a fortune estimated at $250 million, has turned over one complete tax filing, for 2010, along with an estimate for 2011 because he filed for an extension for last year's tax return. Democratic Rep. Sandy Levin of Michigan, the top Democrat on the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, says that's not enough and has introduced a federal measure that would require any presidential candidate to release a decade's worth of the tax documents.
Regarding congressional candidates, Plummer sides on this particular issue with Pelosi, whom he cheered in his statement to the AP for having declared income taxes "a non-issue."