EDITORIAL: Transparency, if not the law, demands that Scott Wagner release his tax returns

York Dispatch

Scott Wagner is right about one thing — he is under no legal obligation to release his tax returns.

Ethically, however, the Republican candidate for governor of Pennsylvania should follow a tradition of transparency.

In recent decades, most gubernatorial nominees have, when asked, released part or all of their federal tax returns.

It’s obvious by now, however, that Wagner is not like most candidates of recent vintage.

That became painfully obvious recently when he was asked about releasing his returns. The owner of Penn Waste Inc., a nonunion, waste-hauling business in York County, fairly bristled in his response.

“If I make money or don’t make money that’s my business,” Wagner said during a question-and-answer session in Erie, an exchange captured on video by the Democratic party. “And you know what? If I disclose those tax returns, union representatives get a hold of my tax returns, go around to my employees’ homes at night and say, ‘Hey Mrs. Jones, how much does your husband make?’ She goes, ‘Well he makes this.’ ‘Well this guy makes a lot more.’”

Scott Wagner, the Republican candidate for governor, said he doesn't plan to release his tax returns. AP FILE PHOTO

A union critic: Wagner’s answer is hardly surprising. During his four years in the state Senate, Wagner often lambasted organized labor. He also supports “right-to-work” legislation — a measure that unions strongly oppose because it would prohibit them from collecting dues from employees who refuse to join the union or pay union dues as a condition of employment.

Using his disdain for unions as a phony excuse for not releasing his tax returns is a slap in the face to every taxpayer in the state — especially for union workers.

Wagner says he doesn’t want workers knowing what he makes

Taxpayers need to know about potential conflicts: Taxpayers need to know if candidates have financial interests that may present a conflict of interest if and when they assume office. That’s because our lawmakers have a great public trust — spending our precious tax dollars.

If you want to assume that trust, you should also be willing to assume the responsibility that comes with it — namely making your financial interests an open book.

Wagner clearly does not want to do that. For a private citizen, that’s perfectly fine. For a potential governor of a state with an annual budget north of $32 billion, it’s not fine.

The voters of Pennsylvania should make that clear to Wagner.

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Not a requirement: Yes, we know Wagner is not required to release his taxes. Rather, candidates are only required to file “statements of financial interest” with the Pennsylvania State Ethics Commission. Wagner has done that.

Those documents require candidates to list sources of income, as well as enterprises in which they have a financial stake or to which they owe money, but not how much money they receive in income. A statement of financial interest is not nearly as revealing as a tax return, say accountants and government watchdogs.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf has said he will release his 2017 tax returns once they are filed. He's asked for an extension. AP FILE PHOTO

A man of sizable means: Wagner has reported nearly 30 sources of income and Penn Waste reported $75 million in revenue last year. That’s a sizable financial portfolio. We’re not begrudging Wagner his money. He’s earned it.

However, we do believe the public — the folks he hopes to serve — should know as much as possible about his assets, so we can determine if there are some areas that may present a conflict.

It’s a simple matter of transparency.

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Wolf pledges to release his return: His Democratic opponent, incumbent Gov. Tom Wolf, is also a man of significant means. Unlike Wagner, however, Wolf has pledged to release the first two pages of his tax return and then open up the rest of it to reporters after it is filed. Wolf has sought an extension of his 2017 return.

Wolf did something similar during his first gubernatorial run in 2014, when he beat then-Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, who also released a tax return.

So how about it, Mr. Wagner? Why not release your tax returns and prove you have nothing hide?

The voters of Pennsylvania will be watching.