Trump famously resisted all calls to release his tax returns in the 2016 presidential elections, claiming victory in spite of refusing to release the returns. But could he be forced to disclose his tax returns if he were to run again in 2020? Lawmakers in California hope so.
The California State Assembly passed a bill in September mandating that all presidential candidates release their tax returns for the five years preceding their run. Dubbed SB 149, or the Presidential Tax Transparency and Accountability Act, the bill stipulates that those who refuse to do so will be barred from the ballot in the state of California.
The bill passed mostly along party lines, with only a few Republicans supporting it. It still needs to be passed in California’s state Senate and then signed by Governor Jerry Brown. Lawmakers in the state are hopeful that the bill will be passed into law, though it remains unclear if Governor Brown will be willing to sign it. Though a Democrat, Brown also did not release his tax returns before taking office. He is the first California governor in over 30 years not to do so.
“For decades, every President has put their personal beliefs aside and put our country first and released their returns. Making your tax returns public is a pretty low threshold to meet. The American people shouldn’t be in the dark about their president’s financial entanglements,” Senator Mike McGuire, one of the bill’s authors, said. “SB 149 helps to reestablish desperately needed transparency in the White House. Our top priority is making sure the voters of California have the information they need before they go into the voting booth. If President Trump doesn’t release his tax returns voluntarily, California will do it for him.”
Trump was the first presidential nominee in well over 40 years to not release his tax returns. He has said that he is currently under audit and will not be releasing the tax returns until the audit is complete. The president’s advisors say that he will not release them, instead pointing to the various financial disclosure forms that he filed prior to taking office.
It perhaps isn’t surprising then that California isn’t the first state to try and force President Trump to release his tax returns. Earlier this year, lawmakers in the state of New York introduced comparable legislation, known as the Tax Returns Uniformly Made Public Act, or TRUMP Act. That legislation is still currently in committee.
Even if California – or another state like New York – does successfully pass a law on mandatory disclosure for presidential nominees’ tax returns, it remains unclear if such a law would be enforceable. It’s unclear if it is legal to add other stipulations to the eligibility requirements for president outside of those detailed in the US constitution. However, several constitutional scholars have weighed in on the matter in support of such laws, including Laurence Tribe, Richard Painter and Norman Eisen, top ethics lawyers during the Bush and Obama administrations.
“A line must of course be drawn between permissible ballot access laws and impermissible attempts to add qualifications to those specified in the federal Constitution,” Tribe, Painter, and Eisen wrote. “But our research and reflection lead us to conclude that tax return disclosure laws comport fully with the US Constitution.”
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