Gov. M. Jodi Rell issued a heated press release slamming Attorney General Richard Blumenthal’s opinion that the Department of Revenue Services must share specific tax returns with a legislative committee [see “Breaking News” item below]. The governor suggested such sharing could lead to a breach in taxpayers’ right to privacy.The governor’s release also featured statements from state Sen. Catherine Cook (R-Mystic), co-chair of the Program Review and Investigations Committee, disavowing her own staff’s requests to DRS for the tax returns. So now a committee that has always been known for bipartisan cooperation finds its leaders publicly split.
“This precedent-setting opinion [from the attorney general] is extremely troublesome,” Governor Rell wrote to Pamela Law, the DRS commissioner. “Tax returns are one of the most personal documents any of us possess. It would rightfully anger the people and businesses of Connecticut to know that the Department of Revenue Services had shared their most intimate financial data with anyone – let alone the members of a legislative committee, their staff and an outside consultant.“Blumenthal said the committee was within its rights to share the returns with an outside consultant, provided all parties respect confidentiality and do not release those records to the public. Despite the strong language in the governor’s release, Rell did not specifically order DRS to withhold the information from the committee. DRS has not received a formal request from the committee co-chairs for the documents, and will evaluate such a query if it arrives, department spokeswoman Sarah Kaufman said.Whether a request will come is now less than certain. Cook, the committee’s co-chairwoman, slammed the idea in the governor’s press release. “I do not believe that the Program Review and Investigations Committee should have access to state citizens’ personal income tax information, nor do I believe that the Committee needs that information to complete a fair, useful and comprehensive study of the tax system,” Senator Cook said in the release. “Connecticut residents would be furious, and rightfully so, to find out that legislators, staff or outside consultants could be looking at their personal tax returns.“Cook’s co-chairman, state Rep. Brendan Sharkey (D-Hamden), said Cook never called him to discuss her views. “I’m surprised by my co-chair’s statements,” he said. “I think the governor protests too much,” Sharkey continued. “This reaction to the AG’s opinion seems at best ill informed, and at worst, defensive. No one is authorized to make public confidential material. I think the governor is way out of line in frightening taxpayers of the state of Connecticut.“If the committee staff still feels it needs the DRS documents to complete their report, the full committee would have to vote to make a formal request to DRS. The committee is evenly stacked with six Democrats and six Republicans. Given Cook and Sharkey’s disagreement, a legislator would have to vote against a chairperson from their own party for the vote to end in anything but a tie.Meanwhile, Blumenthal issued a follow-up letter to his legal opinion, suggesting a meeting between all of the parties to set up a process to transfer the records and maintain confidentiality. Faced with Rell’s criticism, Blumenthal made a point to reaffirm his commitment to privacy rights.“My strong concern is to prevent any violation of privacy rights or interests, and any disclosure of taxpayer identifying information, while exercising the statutory mandate for meeting the Legislature’s legitimate needs for data or information about tax returns and revenue,” the attorney general wrote.