Editorial: Polis aggressively avoided federal income tax and tried to hide it

Revelations that Gov. Jared Polis paid zero federal income tax in 2013, 2014, and 2015 felt like a gut punch.

We knew Polis, a wealthy business owner who lives in Boulder County, had gone years without paying federal income tax. The Denver Post reported on the tax documents he released in 2008 while he ran for Congress.

But we didn’t know the lengths he went to, to avoid paying his fair share of taxes.

Now that we know, it casts everything in a different light.

We have come to regret the 2018 editorial with a headline that says “We know Polis didn’t evade taxes because he released his tax returns.” In that editorial, we defended Polis from attack ads focusing on his tax history. What a mistake.

As it turns out, Polis may not have broken any laws with his aggressive tax avoidance, but he certainly made some ethically dubious decisions.

Those decisions make us feel duped by a man who served in Congress for years, in a position where he could have vocally advocated for reform of tax shelters that unfairly eliminate tax liabilities for the wealthy while middle-class Americans toil away paying a higher percentage of their earnings, and sometimes even a higher dollar amount, to the federal government.

Polis remained silent.

Even after ProPublica released a scathing analysis of his tax avoidance, Polis is not being transparent about the tools he used to eliminate his tax burden so that Congress can either fix it or more Coloradans can also skip out on their tax bills by employing these tricks.

It’s the cover-up that makes us feel so disappointed, coupled with the fact that we trusted and defended him.

So how can Polis make this right?

He can start by detailing all the ways he avoids federal, state, and local taxes. Then he can work hand-in-hand with Colorado’s congressional delegation and the state legislature to close those loopholes. Transparency is the only way to right this wrong, in fact, politicians everywhere should take note that it’s much better to be open and honest about tax avoidance than to try to deceive the public.

First, Polis should open up records from his foundation to detail the charitable work it has or has not done in the past decade. We think the IRS should start looking at the foundations of multi-millionaires to determine how much charitable work they are doing versus how much of a tax shelter they are serving.

Second, Polis needs to bring to the table some concrete ideas for how to prevent millionaires from abusing business loss deductions. ProPublica reported that Polis had a “family office” by the name of Jovian Holdings.

Because Jovian Holdings isn’t actually a business that generates revenue, everything that Polis pours into it can be a deductible “business loss.” ProPublica reported that “The term family office has a mom-and-pop feel, but it is actually part of the infrastructure of protecting the fortunes of the ultrawealthy, from crafting investment and tax strategy to succession and estate planning to concierge services.”

Ordinary taxpayers don’t get to even deduct the cost of TurboTax, but Polis had on his payroll an individual who specialized in “maximizing cost savings both operationally and with all taxing authorities.” Was Polis’ family office paying for private planes and stays at luxury hotels? The public deserves to know.

To be fair, President Donald Trump (who also aggressively avoided taxes and tried to hide it) did make the tax code fairer for everyday Americans by increasing the standard deduction and the child tax credit, but that bill also simultaneously benefited the wealthy keeping the gains made by the middle-class out-of-proportion to the tax benefits that flowed to the wealthy.

If Polis is going to play the “I’ve advocated for lower taxes” card, then he needs to get specific, honest, and much more aggressive in pushing for reform. And no, taking away income taxes and socking the middle class with property taxes and sales taxes isn’t the answer – just find a way to make the wealthy pay federal income tax.

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