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Politician or Not, Tax Return Is Private, Not for the Needlessly Nosy

April 29, 2002|George Skelton

SACRAMENTO — Rose King started all this business about governors releasing their tax returns. That was 31 years ago when she revealed that Gov. Ronald Reagan had not paid a state income tax. Now she has two more revelations.

* She's ready to fess up how, as a college journalism student, she got one of the biggest Capitol scoops ever: that the millionaire governor who contended "taxes should hurt," so people wouldn't get too comfortable paying them, had himself avoided paying any state income tax for 1970.

* Nevertheless, she doesn't think that a politician--whether a candidate or officeholder--should have to release a personal tax return. It's an unwarranted invasion of privacy, she says.

I agree.

Somebody's tax return--even a governor's or president's--should be solely the business of the taxpayer and tax collector. Or a lender or a court. It should not be trivia for the needlessly nosy.

These days, the public can learn what it needs to about politicians' investments and potential conflicts from statements of economic interest they are required to file in Sacramento or Washington.

But in recent years, governors and presidents have been

cowed by rivals and reporters into releasing their tax returns. Those who refuse may pay a political penalty.

The latest victim is Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Simon, who has wasted two weeks of campaigning trying to explain why he won't share his returns with the planet.

Says Stu Spencer, Reagan's political strategist: "There are two basic things in modern politics. You've got to debate. And you've got to disclose your income taxes. Those are the basics whether you like them or not."

Thanks in no small part to Rose King.

In 1971, she was a single mom journalism student at Cal State Sacramento with a campus FM radio show. She reported on the air that Reagan had paid no state tax. Her listenership was small, however, and the news did not spread far.

But she also interned for Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman Mervyn Dymally of Los Angeles. King informed her boss about the radio report, a Capitol TV reporter was tipped and Reagan was queried at his weekly news conference.

The startled governor-- unReaganlike--hemmed and hawed: "You know something, I don't actually know whether I did [pay taxes] or not."

But minutes after the testy news conference ended, Reagan's office confirmed that "because of business reverses" he had owed no state tax. He did pay a federal tax. The "business reverses" turned out to be a loophole cattle herd.

The story dogged Reagan for months. It probably was the most aggravating, embarrassing and damaging of his governorship.

How did King get it? Speculation was that it leaked from the Franchise Tax Board, but the attorney general never could find evidence and King wouldn't talk.

"I've never told anybody," she says, "but the statute of limitations has run."

A tax board employee did open Reagan's mailed return, King says, and couldn't keep the secret. Who could? The woman told a salesclerk she'd gotten to know at a clothing store one block from the Capitol. The salesclerk was King's mother. Mom told daughter.

Daughter called the state worker to hear her story firsthand, but never personally saw Reagan's return. "I took a chance," she says, "but told myself 'I just can't sit on this.'

" ... I had my 15 minutes of fame."

The Sac State student was accepted into journalism grad school at UC Berkeley. King's sure it was because she'd nailed Reagan, the devil incarnate at Berkeley. But she never did go into professional journalism. King became a professional Democrat as a legislative staffer and campaign consultant.

Reagan reluctantly began releasing his tax returns in 1980 while running for president. He did every year as president, as have other presidents. And governors. (Richard Nixon probably was the first president to release his taxes, in 1973 while drowning in Watergate.)

It's nonsense, King has concluded, although she does enjoy watching Simon squirm.

"I don't think a tax return is that revealing," she says. "It really doesn't have a lot to do with the ability to govern or policies. They already have to report their investments and that's appropriate. But what they contribute to charity? That's really none of my business."


Gov. Gray Davis is wrong when he asserts that Simon should release his taxes so voters will "know whether he paid his fair share." That's the role of the IRS and Franchise Tax Board. And what's with "fair"? The only legitimate question is whether what is paid is what is owed.

After King's scoop, however, Reagan instructed his lawyer--future U.S. Atty. Gen. William French Smith--to make sure from then on that he always pay some income tax. Whether owed or not.

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