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Tax returns in need of more scrutiny, not less

While there are apparently some political reporters who think Mitt Romney's tax returns -- or rather, the absence of his tax returns -- are generating a little too much attention, I tend to think that's backwards.

Romney has released his returns for one year. One. His aides said they'll get around to releasing the 2011 materials eventually, maybe in October. In the meantime, there are important unanswered questions about Romney's offshore finances, controversial investments, an individual retirement account that somehow ended up with more than $100 million, and claims about his business that contradict SEC filings. Worse, Romney hasn't even tried to come up with a good defense that explains his need for secrecy.

Given all of this, common sense suggests red flags should be going up. As Jamelle Bouie noted, the public has certainly taken notice.

The ongoing fight over his tax returns has done even more damage to the former Massachusetts governor. Here's the question [from the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll]: "Has what you have seen, read, or heard about Mitt Romney's tax returns and the percent he has paid in federal income taxes made you feel ... more positive or more negative about him, not made much difference in your opinion or do you not know enough about this to have an opinion at this time?"

Only 6 percent of respondents say that it has made a positive difference in their opinion of Romney. Thirty-six percent say that it has made a negative difference, and 41 percent say that it hasn't made much difference at all.... Romney's anger over the Obama campaign's decision to go after his tax returns makes more sense in this light; the controversy is doing real damage to his campaign, and more important, it has the potential to do more if Team Obama can return it to the forefront of the discussion.

When more than a third of the electorate is souring on Romney over this, it's a real issue, not a peripheral distraction.

The Republican candidate is willing to take the hit -- he apparently assumes the damage would be even worse if he chose more disclosure and transparency -- hoping the media loses interest. But that's not a reason to blow off the story; it's a reason to stay engaged.