State Watch

Democrats try new tactic to get Trump’s tax returns


State legislators across the country are debating new measures that would require candidates running for president to publicly disclose their tax returns to qualify for the ballot.

The measures are aimed at President Trump, who became the first White House candidate in recent years to refuse to release his tax documents to the public.

Democrats, incensed by Trump’s false claims of being prevented from releasing the documents because of an IRS audit, see the legislation on the state level as a way to force the president’s hand when he seeks reelection in 2020.

“Tax return information would provide some transparency there to give voters the assurance that they need that the president is acting on behalf of us,” said Kathleen Clyde, an Ohio state representative who recently introduced a version of the bill. “It is problematic that he is the only candidate in 30 or 40 years not to provide that information.”

{mosads}Clyde’s bill, the Tax Returns Uniformly Made Public Act — the TRUMP Act — would require candidates for president and vice president to disclose five years of tax documents to Ohio’s Secretary of State, who would then post the documents online. Only after a candidate disclosed the tax information would he or she qualify for the ballot in one of the nation’s most hotly contested battlegrounds. 

Similar measures requiring candidates to file with Secretary of State offices have been introduced in California, Oregon and Tennessee. Candidates would be required to file tax documents with state boards of election under bills filed in Illinois, Maryland, New York and Rhode Island.  

Other versions of the legislation would require presidential candidates to disclose their tax records in public, though not necessarily through state offices, before they qualify for the ballot. All told, 32 versions of tax disclosure bills have been filed in 19 states.

Most of the measures introduced this year have come from Democrats. Only one version of the bill, in Minnesota, was introduced by a Republican.

In states with Republican-led legislatures, the tax bills are as good as dead. Virginia’s legislature killed a disclosure bill in committee. Similar laws have been sent to die in committees in Arizona, Iowa, Pennsylvania and Tennessee.

But in other states, mostly those run by Democrats, some bills are making progress. Committees have approved versions in New Jersey and New Mexico. A legislative committee in Hawaii advanced their version of the bill this week. 

Legislators in Maryland and Connecticut held hearings on their measures last month. Oregon’s version, sponsored by House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson (D), will likely advance to the floor.  

And in California, where Democrats own a super majority of legislative seats, the bill’s prime sponsors expect it to advance after hearings are held in April. Mike McGuire, the California state senator who sponsored the bill, said he hopes his state will inspire others to action. 

“The office of the president is the only office in America that is exempt from conflict of interest laws,” said Mike McGuire, the California senator who sponsored the bill. “We believe that, as California goes, so many times, so goes the nation.”

Legal experts said it is unclear whether requiring a candidate to disclose his or her tax returns would withstand legal scrutiny. Rick Hasen, a campaign legal expert at the University of California-Irvine and author of the Election Law Blog, wrote that U.S. Supreme Court cases have blocked states from adding qualifications for congressional candidates to ballot access rules, though those cases did not cover presidential elections.

“If those cases applied here, it would be tough to argue that laws requiring presidential candidates to produce tax returns are constitutional as they would be adding to qualifications,” Hasen wrote on his blog. “However, those cases did not involve presidential elections, and perhaps state legislatures have much broader power under Article II.” 

McGuire said he had consulted with constitutional experts, and that courts have approved other ballot access requirements, like collecting signatures or paying a fee.

“States clearly have the ability to require a filing fee and other requirements before someone can be placed onto the ballot,” McGuire said. “Courts have upheld these requirements over the past several decades, and we’re sure they’re going to uphold this law as well.” 

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