Sunday, September 23, 2012

Romney Returns: Days Late, Dollars Short, Still Incomplete

After months of withering attacks, Mitt Romney has finally (sort of) lifted the veil of secrecy around his personal finances. At 3 pm, his campaign released his full 2011 tax return and a summary from PriceWaterhouseCooper of his tax filings over twenty years, from 1990–2009.

The bottom line: as everyone suspected, Romney pays a lower tax rate than the typical middle-class family—and he seems to have purposely engineered a higher rate for himself for optical reasons. Moreover, by only summarizing the past twenty years of returns, there’s a lot we don’t know.
2011 returns
The top-line takeaway from the returns isn’t particularly good—his 2011 tax rate was 14.1 percent, below the effective tax rate for most Americans despite Romney’s vast wealth. (The middle 20 percent of households paid a 16 percent federal income tax rate in 2010). Most of Romney’s income is from capital gains, which is taxed at a lower rate than income—and Obama wants to change that and raise the rate, while Romney does not.

The returns are sure to underscore the absurdity of someone who made $13,696,951 last year, as Romney did, paying a lower tax rate than, say, a plumber in Memphis.

Additionally, by the campaign’s own admission, Romney purposely did not deduct all of his charitable giving—claiming only $2.25 million out of about $4 million—to make his rate “conform to the Governor’s statement in August…that he paid at least 13% in income taxes in each of the last 10 years.” If he did the deductions in full, he would have paid around 9 percent. (By Romney’s own standard, this disqualifies him: he said on the trail that “frankly if I had paid more than are legally due I don’t think I’d be qualified to become president. I’d think people would want me to follow the law and pay only what the tax code requires).

So here’s a guy who made over $13 million last year, paying a lower tax rate than most Americans, and purposely paying more to the IRS so as not to seem too rich. If this is what Romney’s campaign wanted to change the conversation to, they must have been really unhappy with what it was.
The 1990–2009 Summary
Romney’s trustee, Brad Malt, has a summary of the summary on the campaign website. (Note that Malt oversees Romney’s supposedly blind trust, which makes it interesting he’s also serving a campaign function here). It says:
  • In each year during the entire 20-year period period, the Romneys owed both state and federal income taxes.
  • Over the entire 20-year period period, the average annual effective federal tax rate was 20.20%.
  • Over the entire 20-year period period, the lowest annual effective federal personal tax rate was 13.66%.
  • Over the entire 20-year period period, the Romneys gave to charity an average of 13.45% of their adjusted gross income.
This is a really sneaky maneuver. The tax rate averages out to a semi-respectable 20.20 percent, but what does that really tell us? It’s still possible that in really high-earning years, Romney paid an absurdly low tax rate. If he paid a normal rate in lower-earning years, it could still produce that average.

And if Romney did pay really low rates during high-income years, what mechanisms did he use? What sort of tax shelters might he have employed? We don’t know that either, and aren’t likely to find out unless Romney releases the actual returns—something he required of all his potential vice-presidental nominees.

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