DENVER — Gov. Jared Polis paid nothing in federal income taxes in 2013, 2014 and 2015.
An investigation by ProPublica is providing a closer look at the governor’s taxes after the news organization came into the possession of a trove of tax documents from some of the nation’s wealthiest leaders.
During his run for Congress in 2008, Polis did disclose several years’ worth of his own tax filings to the public. He has also advocated for more political candidates to release their tax returns.
As a congressman, Polis was one of the main proponents calling for then-President Donald Trump to release his taxes, introducing a resolution on the House floor in March 2017 to try to force Trump's hand and speaking at a rally in Denver one month later.
However, when he ran for governor in 2018, Polis did not release his more recent tax returns, saying he would release the records when his opponent, Walker Stapleton, released his.
“I had an opponent that didn’t release his taxes. I think all candidates should be held to the same standard, and I support requiring candidates to make additional releases,” Polis told Colorado Public Radio in an interview Thursday. “What I think doesn’t work is if one candidate is doing it and another candidate isn’t.”
Propublica’s release is part of a months-long investigation and series called The Secret IRS Files where the organization digs into the filings of both Republicans and Democrats.
“Income taxes are among the most secretive and personal information that we have on our finances,” Propublica data reporter Ellis Simani said.
Propublica would not disclose how they came into possession of the tax documents but said they have been vetted.
The investigation found that Polis, who made his fortune in the dot-com era and is now worth hundreds of millions, paid nothing in federal income taxes from 2013-2015. He had a positive income of roughly $1 million in two of those years and a negative income one year.
Between 2010 and 2018, the governor had an average income tax rate of 8.2%, which is less than most Coloradans while his average income was $1.5 million.
However, nothing the governor did was illegal. The team of data journalists found that the governor used two main tactics to minimize the amount he owed in taxes: charitable donations and investing in certain businesses.
On the philanthropic side, Polis was able to reduce his taxable income by donating to charities and deducting the contributions. The investigation found the governor was able to wipe out half of the income he would have owed taxes on with these donations.
“He has been somebody who has been highly involved in philanthropy over the years,” Simani said.
However, the investigation also found that one of the places the governor donated to, The Jared Polis Foundation, spent more than $2 million between 2001 and 2008 sending out mailers advocating for education that resembled campaign ads.
“What happens at time is the lines can be blurred between things that serve a political purpose but also are giving him the benefit of lowering his tax burden as well,” Simani said.
The Polis administration defended the mailers, saying they promote innovations in education and that the governor’s philanthropy has never been motivated by tax write-offs.
The second way the ProPublica team found that the governor was able to write off his taxes was by investing in businesses that grow in value but produce minimal income.
“That money could be growing your wealth as the value of those investments is increasing, but if you’re not selling stocks and you’re not realizing your income that is not subject to taxation,” Simani said.
Once that money is realized, however, like when the stocks or company are sold, the government can tax it.
Polis spoke about the ProPublica investigation during Colorado Matters on Colorado Public Radio saying he has paid all the taxes required by law but also agreeing with the premise that the current system favors the wealthy.
He also advocated for changes to the tax system, saying the income tax is not the best way to make the wealthy pay their fair share.
Instead, he advocated for a pollution tax, a wealth tax or a value added tax. He said he hopes the Democrats in Washington use the reconciliation package as an opportunity to change the tax system.
Colorado Republicans are already taking aim at the governor for the findings of this investigation.
“It’s shameful that he would use charity to promote himself and use every tax loophole in the book to avoid paying taxes, all while Colorado Democrats fight every day to raise taxes on Coloradans,” GOP chairwoman Kristi Burton Brown said in a statement.
The governor’s team denied Denver7’s request for an interview, but in a statement, spokesperson Elizabeth Kosar said, “Last year the Governor signed historic tax reform legislation that closed a number of unfair loopholes and tax giveaways that benefit the wealthy and well connected to increase support for working families and small businesses, including funding the Colorado child tax credit for the first time, increasing the earned income tax credit, and eliminating the business personal property tax for small businesses."