Why Jeb never ticks that box on his tax returns

Jeb Bush at a town hall meeting in Henderson, Nevada, June 27, 2015.
David Becker | Reuters
Jeb Bush at a town hall meeting in Henderson, Nevada, June 27, 2015.

Jeb Bush doesn't care much for public financing of presidential elections, but he may have once.

Bush has called public finance "welfare for politicians" and has actively campaigned against its use. But through his 1981 tax return, he elected to support the Presidential Election Campaign Fund, a public finance program administered by the Federal Elections Commission.

It was three decades ago, and it was only $2, but it suggests an early opposite stance from what has been his unwavering support for private campaign funding, and puts Bush in line with the 94 percent of Americans who either tick "no" or leave the box blank (effectively a "no").

Bush recently released 33 years of tax returns, more than any presidential candidate ever has. The documents revealed that Bush has paid an effective federal tax rate of around 36 percent over the past three decades. The Democratic frontrunner, Hillary Clinton, paid a tax rate of over 30 percent between January 2014 and May 2015, according to a personal finance disclosure earlier this year.

The Bush campaign played down the issue. "In all three of his campaigns, Governor Bush has declined to take public financing," Bush spokeswoman Allie Brandenburger wrote in an email. "During the 2008 Presidential race, Barack Obama pledged to take public financing, but ... when it was more politically expedient for him to opt out he swiftly decided against it."

In a post on the campaign site accompanying his tax returns, Bush recalls moving with his wife to Miami in January 1981 to work in real estate. Bush had just come from working on the Republican presidential campaign of 1980, in which Ronald Reagan had accepted $29.4 million in public funding in his campaign against Jimmy Carter. That was on top of $7.3 million Reagan received from the FEC in the primary, 23 percent of the primary funds in a field of 10 candidates. (Reagan's eventual running mate and Jeb's father, George H.W. Bush, received the second most, $5.7 million.)

Hillary Clinton hasn't released her tax returns since she ran in 2008, but she and Bill ticked the box to direct money to the fund every year from 1992 to 2006, according to documents from the Tax History Project and The New York Times.

According to documents maintained by the Tax History Project, former Republican presidential candidate John McCain ticked the box in 2006 and 2007; former Vice President Dick Cheney did so from 2001 to 2007; and Mitt Romney ticked the box in 2010.

Even some of Jeb Bush's opponents in the Republic primary have ticked the box: Ted Cruz did so from 2006 to 2010, according to documents from the Texas Tribune.

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All of these year ranges are the full extent of tax returns made available by the campaigns, so it's a bare minimum.

Marco Rubio ticked the box for himself in 2001, but not for his wife. The other years from 2000 to 2009 he either ticked "no" or did not indicate either way, according to documents from Buzzfeed News.

Even the best-laid plans...

The Presidential Election Campaign Fund was set up following the Watergate scandal with the intention of creating an attractive public-financing system. In applying to be part of the program, presidential candidates receive matching funds for donations up to $250 for the primary campaign and a set amount for the general. A separate portion of the fund was paid to political committees to help pay for nominating conventions.

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By ticking the box on page one of the IRS form 1040, a taxpayer elected to send $1 from the IRS to the fund, or $2 for couples filing jointly. (In 1994, the check-off rates were increased to $3 and $6, respectively.)

One of the big misconceptions, it seems, is that ticking the box will affect your tax return or how your taxes are processed. It's not like when the grocery-store cashier asks if you want to donate a dollar to some charity. Rather, it directs the money from the IRS to the FEC to be used by the fund.

Presidential aspirants for decades used the fund, with all major candidates opting into the program.

Public participation started strong, with nearly 30 percent of taxpayers ticking the "yes" box in 1976. Since then, the portion of declined steadily and only 6 percent did so in 2013, the most recent year available from the FEC.

But public campaign finance hasn't been looking so good in a while. President Barack Obama was the first major-party candidate to refuse public financing since the fund was created. In 2012, after the Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case opened the floodgates for unlimited private donations, neither Obama nor Romney accepted public funds.

In April 2014, Obama signed legislation effectively ending public funding of the nominating conventions.

Now, with presidential candidates opting out of the public-finance system and instead relying on massive contributions from private donors, the fund remains in FEC coffers.

Bush has come under fire this year for allegedly skirting campaign finance rules by collecting funds before officially announcing his presidential run and for close communications with PACs set up to support his bid. Fundraisers for the campaign reportedly began instructing megadonors not to give more than $1 million a quarter, in the hopes to play down any appearance of pay-for-play, according to The Washington Post.