Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney appears to be the frontrunner in the GOP presidential field in more ways than one. Thanks to the fact that only one Republican candidate, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, has released personal tax returns, Romney appears to lead the current slate of candidates in charitable giving. Given the prominent role religious faith plays for many of the GOP candidates-along with their calls for less public spending and more private enterprise, including charity-the lack of disclosure on personal giving could prove decisive.
Though Romney hasn't released his personal tax returns, he has given away millions through the Tyler Charitable Foundation, whose records are publicly available.
From 2000 to 2009, Romney and his wife gave $6.4 million through the foundation, with $4.6 million of that then going to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, where Romney is a member. The second-highest recipient of the Romneys' gifts is the Mormon-affiliated Brigham Young University, where all five of their sons attended, underscoring the family's commitment to their Mormon religion.
Romney waived his $135,000 salary while he was governor of Massachusetts and pledged in the 2008 campaign to donate the $400,000 presidential salary to charity if he was elected. The Romneys are worth between $190 million and $250 million.
Because Romney hasn't released his personal tax returns, information about his income over the last decade is spotty, based on financial disclosures filed while he was the governor of Massachusetts and a presidential candidate. In his 2003 disclosure, for example, he reported no income because he waived his salary, but he gave $1.9 million to the Mormon church. The disclosure form didn't show capital earnings.
The foundation may account for only part of his giving, so calculating the percentage of his income that he gives away is difficult. Romney has a "temple recommend," which means a Mormon bishop interviews him every two years and confirms, among other things, that he is paying the church 10 percent of his income. Romney gave millions to the church through the foundation over the last two years, but then the foundation didn't give anything to the church between 2004 and 2007, raising the question of whether he tithed privately rather than through the foundation.
"One of the vehicles [the Romneys] use for their charitable giving is their charitable foundation, but it is not the only vehicle. They also contribute directly from their personal accounts," said Eric Fehrnstrom, Romney's spokesman. "In some years, the charitable foundation has been inactive or not as active as it has been recently so it doesn't give you a completely accurate picture of all the Romneys' charitable giving. We haven't made any decision on releasing tax return information."
In general, providing that kind of detailed personal tax information isn't in a candidate's political interest. The campaigns for Michele Bachmann, Ron Paul, Tim Pawlenty, and Herman Cain did not respond to a request from WORLD for charitable giving information.
Mike Huckabee was an advocate for public officials releasing their tax returns when he was governor of Arkansas, but when he released his own records, he reaped controversy. "I was naïve enough to think that if I provide everything beyond what is legally required that I would be applauded," he told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in 2001. "What I found was all I did was hand over fodder for people in the print media and political opponents who like to file ethics complaints."
The only member of the GOP presidential field who has volunteered his personal tax returns-Perry-has reaped some controversy, too. Perry is a man who regularly speaks about his Christian faith. Most recently, on Aug. 6 he spoke at a prayer rally in Houston that drew almost 30,000 (see "Perry's Day of Prayer" in this issue). But despite his public commitment to his faith, Perry has given a pittance of his income to Christian organizations. Since 2000, Perry and his wife Anita have donated to churches $12,668-or 0.47 percent of their income-according to their personal tax returns. They have not donated personal income to any other Christian nonprofits.
Perry grew up in the Methodist church and is a member at Tarrytown United Methodist Church in Austin, the same church President George W. Bush attended when he was governor. But Perry told the Austin American Statesman last year that he attended the nondenominational Lake Hills Church more frequently than the Methodist church. He has given $5,503 to the Methodist church since 2000, $2,850 to Lake Hills, and smaller amounts to five other churches. In 2007, when he reported income of over $1 million, he gave $90 to his church.
In total, his charitable giving is a bit better: He and his wife have given 3.3 percent of their income over the last decade-above the national average of around 2 percent but below the biblical standard of a 10 percent tithe. Perry has given the most money to the Texas Governor's Mansion Restoration Fund, and the second most to the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault, an organization where his wife is a consultant.
The only candidate other than Perry to publish his personal tax returns is President Barack Obama. Obama has slowly edged up his giving, from under 1 percent of his income in 2000, to 1.4 percent in 2003, then up to 6 percent in 2006, and peaking at 13.6 percent last year. During his term, President George W. Bush gave an average of 9.3 percent. The Clintons gave an average of 24 percent of their income when Bill Clinton was president, though a few of those years they published a statement of their income and giving rather than the tax returns themselves.