Mitt Romney, confronted by persistent questions about his personal finances as the presidential race intensifies, said he paid a tax rate of at least 13 percent over the last decade.
Saying the “fascination” with his tax returns is “small-minded” at a time of big national and global challenges, the Republican challenger denied as “totally false” charges that he had failed to pay taxes over the last decade.
“I did go back and look at my taxes, and over the past 10 years I never paid less than 13 percent,” Romney told reporters yesterday in a question-and-answer session in Greer, South Carolina. “Every year, I’ve paid at least 13 percent, and if you add, in addition, the amount that goes to charity, why, the number gets well above 20 percent.”
President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign, unwilling to abandon an issue it believes is resonating, shot back that Romney should, in the words of spokesman Ben LaBolt, “prove it.” Romney “has forfeited the right to have us take him just at his word,” Lis Smith, an Obama spokeswoman, said in a statement.
The president’s team has emphasized the tax issue in some of its ads, including one that spotlighted a Swiss bank account Romney had with Zurich-based UBS AG that was closed in 2010.
Following Romney’s disclosure, Obama’s political advisers tried a new tactic. Campaign manager Jim Messina distributed a letter to his Republican counterpart saying that if Romney will release five years of tax returns, the Obama campaign won’t criticize him for not revealing any more.
Romney’s campaign declined.
“It is clear that President Obama wants nothing more than to talk about Governor Romney’s tax returns instead of the issues that matter to voters,” Romney campaign manager Matt Rhoades wrote in a response sent to reporters.
Romney has released his 2010 return, which shows that he paid an effective tax rate of 13.9 percent on more than $21 million in income, most of it from capital gains and dividends. He has pledged to release his 2011 return when it is completed, while rejecting calls from Democrats and some Republicans that he release additional years.
His campaign said the 13 percent figure he cited represented his share of federal income tax. That is a higher rate than the average household pays. In 2009, the most recent year with available data, the average federal income tax rate was 7.2 percent, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
Romney’s rate was similar to the 13.4 percent average tax rate for the top 20 percent of taxpayers, and lower than the 21 percent rate paid by the top 1 percent of taxpayers -- those making more than $1.2 million -- according to the CBO.
Financial disclosure statements Romney has released have estimated his personal wealth to be as much as $250 million.
Romney called yesterday’s brief news conference to press his attacks on President Barack Obama on Medicare, an issue that has dominated the campaign since the Republican chose House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan -- the architect of a plan to eventually privatize the government health-care program for seniors -- as his vice presidential running mate on Aug. 11.
Romney denied that his Medicare proposal could fairly be characterized as a voucher program, retreating from a description he used last year to describe letting seniors receive a set government subsidy to buy private insurance. The former Massachusetts governor said at the time that he supported giving future seniors a choice of staying in the traditional Medicare program -- which provides set benefits -- or taking the set contribution to buy their own coverage, an approach Ryan has since adopted.
In an October interview with the Las Vegas Review Journal, he said that “you have a program like Paul Ryan has proposed, which says we’re going to give people vouchers to let them choose among private plans.”
He described such a plan as having “a good deal of merit. I would not at the same time want to remove the option from people to have standard Medicare. But I would probably move toward a more managed-care approach even in Medicare itself.”
Romney, brandishing a whiteboard and dry-erase marker like the consultant he once was, sought to back up his charge that Obama is harming seniors with cuts to Medicare. With one column labeled “Obama” and the other “Romney,” he scribbled down under the president’s name the ways he said Obama has weakened Medicare for seniors, including $716 billion in cuts that were used to finance the 2010 health care law.
Romney said that would mean about 4 million seniors would “lose their coverage under Medicare Advantage,” and cause hospitals and nursing homes to turn Medicare patients away.
“The president’s plan has a dramatic impact on today’s seniors -- people 55 years of age and older,” he said.
While Medicare’s actuary has estimated that the reductions could shift as many as 4 million seniors out of Medicare Advantage plans -- an option that allows them to buy enhanced coverage from private insurers -- it wouldn’t result in a loss of benefits for anyone.
Asked what he would say to voters who worried his approach -- known as premium support -- might raise costs for future retirees, Romney responded. “Which of these two do you think is better: going bankrupt, or being solvent?”
He said his plan “gives all of the next-generation retirees the option of having standard Medicare, a fee-for-service-type, government-run Medicare, or a private Medicare plan. They get their choice.”
The Obama campaign responded with whiteboard of its own, releasing a graphic and statement that asserted Romney’s plan would eliminate free preventive services for seniors and cost future retirees as much as $6,000 more in premiums, while sending the program into bankruptcy by 2016.
Obama’s “health-care law eliminates insurance company subsidies, and cracks down on waste and fraud in Medicare -- saving $716 billion -- and doesn’t cut a single guaranteed Medicare benefit,” the Obama campaign said. It said that Ryan included those savings in a budget plan his House committee produced, a proposal that Romney called “marvelous.”
Romney, as he has before, scoffed at the recent claim that he paid no taxes in some years that was made by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Reid, a Nevada Democrat, cited an unnamed source in making the accusation.
“So I paid taxes every single year,” Romney said. “Harry Reid’s charge is totally false. I’m sure waiting for Harry to put up who it was that told him what he says they told him. I don’t believe it for a minute, by the way.”
Reid spokesman Adam Jentleson responded in an e-mail saying, “Until Mitt Romney releases his tax returns, Americans will continue to wonder what he’s hiding.”