"I pay all the taxes...not a dollar more" - Will Romney's tax release help or hurt him?

The Globe and Mail

Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney campaigns at the Florence Civic Center in Florence, S.C., Jan. 17, 2012. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

The low point in Mitt Romney’s handling of his tax records – and whether to release them – came in South Carolina when the moderator of a televised debate asked him whether he would follow the footsteps of his father who released 12 years of tax records during his 1968 bid for the presidency.

“Maybe. You know, I don’t know how many years I’ll release,” he said on Thursday night. The audience’s boos and heckles seemed to surprise Mr. Romney who is in his second bid for the presidency.

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Mr. Romney’s position on whether and when to release his tax records continued to shift steadily throughout January until it was clear, after his drubbing in South Carolina, that his caginess on the issue was costing his candidacy.

“We just made a mistake in holding off as long as we did. It was a distraction,” he told a FOX news presenter.

On Tuesday morning, the Romney campaign released the candidate’s records for 2010 and the estimated tax returns for 2011. Effectively, all of his income comes from capital gains, dividends and interest from investments, which are taxed at a lower rate (15%) compared to wages (35%).

“I pay all the taxes that are legally required and not a dollar more. I don’t think you want someone as the candidate for president who pays more taxes than he owes,” Mr. Romney told a Florida debate audience the night before his records were released.

The facts will not put to rest questions over how he made his millions and how his tax rate squares with the rate paid by average American tax payers and his opponents.

Here’s a comparison:

Mitt Romney 2011 tax: $3.2-million tax on an income of $20.9-million, for an effective tax rate of 15.4 per cent (estimate).

Mitt Romney 2010 tax: $3-million tax paid on a income of $21.7-million, for an effective tax rate of 13.9 per cent.

Newt Gingrich 2010 tax: Nearly $1-million tax paid on $3.1-million income, for an effective tax rate of 31 per cent.

Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum has promised to release his 2010 tax return this week, and Texas Congressman Ron Paul, who wants to eliminate income tax and the IRS altogether, joked in South Carolina that he was too embarrassed to release his tax records because of his low income.

Democrats will be keen to draw attention to President Barack Obama’s 2010 record, released last April: Nearly half a million dollars tax paid on an income of $1.72-million, for an effective tax rate of 26 per cent.

Mr. Romney’s Democrat opponents will hone in on two key points.

First, they will draw attention to the U.S. tax system and ask why the nation’s tax code allows for “carried interest” - which is the source of a lot of Mr. Romney’s 2010 and 2011 income - to be taxed at a 15 per cent capital gains rate. Normal income would be taxed at a higher rate.

President Obama views these provisions for wealthy investors and executives as tax breaks and loopholes that need to closed.

This piece by Bloomberg News outlines the debate over the tax rate paid by investment executives who receive the bulk of their income from dividends, interest, and capital gains.

Expect President Obama to draw attention to the unfairness in the tax code during Tuesday night’s State of the Union address. It is an issue that polls well with American voters and President Obama will not pull punches on this issue during an election year.

Incidentally, the Romneys were able to reduce their effective tax rate, in part, by giving away $7-million in charity, more than half of that to the Mormon Church.

Secondly, Democrats will draw attention to the overseas accounts.

A Romney Swiss bank account was closed in 2010. Accounts in Ireland, Luxembourg, and the Cayman Islands remain open. However, Romney’s spokesman argues that those accounts are taxed as if they were held in the United States.

“These entities are not evading one dime of taxes,” Mr. Romney’s trustee Brad Malt told the Washington Post.

Mr. Romney’s Republican opponents will tread more carefully – if at all – on the details of his tax records.

After all, this is the Republican party that brought in historic tax cuts during the George W. Bush presidency, and low tax is still party orthodoxy.

Also, Mr. Romney was hit hard ahead of the South Carolina primary by a pro-Gingrich Super PAC over his claim to have created 100,000 jobs during his tenure as head of investment firm Bain Capital.

On Saturday, during his South Carolina primary night speech, Mr. Romney warned his opponents against picking up the “weapons of the left.” This was a direct message to the Gingrich campaign and his surrogates: Mr. Romney and the party elite would not forgive Republicans for using Democrat line of attacks.

Mr. Gingrich has already indicated that he is unlikely to purse the issue of Mr. Romney’s tax records any further.

But Mr. Romney’s fortune, estimated at $250-million, is tied to his success at Bain Capital.

And while the attacks on Mr. Romney’s business record and allegations that he was a “corporate raider” have softened, there was a key development Monday when a pro-Gingrich Super Pac announced that it will be getting another $5-million from a wealthy American couple whose first donation was used by the Super Pac to run ads attacking Mr. Romney’s Bain Capital years.

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