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Presidential hopefuls should disclose tax returns

Jim HamillWe live in “interesting times,” where every utterance is taken as signaling some political leaning. That is unfortunate for someone who writes columns on tax law issues.

In 2016, I wrote, in this column, that all who secure the nomination of a major political party for the office of president should disclose their tax returns. This had nothing to do with attacking Donald Trump but was, of course, interpreted in that way.

So now that the 2020 campaign is over, and Donald Trump will no longer run for president, I return to the topic with the hope, likely to be dashed, that my thoughts will be taken as they are intended. That is, to be general and not directed to a particular individual.

There is a substantial body of evidence that compliance with the tax laws is a function of how the taxpayer views the degree of compliance of others. If we think others cheat, we are more likely to at least fudge ourselves.

Before dashing off an e-mail attesting to your honesty, note that I said more likely, not definite. With 130 million individual tax returns filed each year, if only 10% of us decide we’d be suckers to be honest when others are not, the country is in a bit of a pickle.

I believe it is particularly important, as Richard Nixon memorably told the country in his 1952 “Checkers” speech, that we see that our president is not a crook. We learned decades later, after Checkers had crossed the rainbow bridge, that Mr. Nixon was indeed a tax cheat.

We learned about Nixon only when he finally, under the cloud of Watergate, released his tax returns. I think it’s fair to say that Mr. Nixon’s tax shenanigans were encouraged by his expectation that they would not be disclosed.

If you want to know something about a person’s character, look at how they spend and manage their money. A tax return can be a window into the filer’s soul. Voters should be able to see that. Character in a leader is too important to not experience it, like the blind men and the elephant, from all angles.

The tax issues revealed by the New York Times story on Donald Trump are significant, numerous, and, in some cases shocking. They are also complex and not understood by the average person. Thus we hear they are just things all real estate people do, which is simply not true.

But if most of the Trump issues are too complex for the layperson, we can focus on the mundane. This explains the unusual attention paid to the $70,000 Trump deducted for hairstyling while he was head honcho on “The Apprentice.” The footnote to this includes the $95,000 for Ivanka’s styling.

The tax law does, indeed, allow for unusual deductions. Yet there are no cases that allow a television personality to deduct the cost of hairstyling. There are several that specifically do not allow such deductions.

The cases that exist do not involve $70,000 in costs nor, obviously, $95,000. Stevie Nicks claimed $12,495 for both makeup and hairstyling. I mention Stevie just to show my opinions on tax deductions for hairstyling come honestly, without judgment. Listen to the demo versions of “Gypsy” and “The Chain” – how can you not love Stevie Nicks?

Anyway back to Trump. It’s not about him, it’s about the office of the presidency. The American people do deserve to know if their president is a crook. Every candidate since Ford respected this. If we need a law to require disclosure then let’s do it.

Now some of you are just not convinced this is not an attack on one man. Alright Hamill, show us your tax returns you say. Well I’m not running for president. Well isn’t that convenient the church lady in you says.

I taught at UNM for many years. My salary was readily available to all. Friends, neighbors, anyone interested. I was paid by the public so the public had a right to know my salary. I accepted that. If I run for president I will similarly accept that the public has a right to see my tax returns. That should be a requirement.

James R. Hamill is the Director of Tax Practice at Reynolds, Hix & Co. in Albuquerque. He can be reached at jimhamill@rhcocpa.com.

 

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