Lawmakers in 26 states have introduced legislation to compel presidential candidates to release their federal tax returns, highlighting Americans’ frustrations with President Trump’s refusal to make his filings public.
This week, a Democratic senator in North Carolina added his state to the growing number of states that, in the absence of action by Congress, are attempting to make statutory changes to avoid another presidential election in which voters are unaware of the candidate’s personal financials.
Almost three-quarters of Americans believe that Trump should release his returns, according to a recent poll. Trump is the first president in over four decades to hide his returns. On April 15, thousands of Americans and top Democratic lawmakers will hold Tax Day protests to remind the public about the lack of transparency. The coalition of organizations and labor unions planning the marches are also pointing to support from lawmakers in dozens of states.
In New Jersey, a bill that would require tax returns to be disclosed by all candidates in the general election has passed both houses of the legislature and currently sits on Gov. Chris Christie (R)’s desk. Christie has vowed to veto the legislation, but similar bills in Democrat-controlled states, including New York and California, are more likely to be signed before the next presidential election.
“If we learned anything from this last election cycle, it’s that political norms that we take for granted in this country can be broken if they’re not enshrined in law,” New York state Sen. Brad Hoylman (D) told reporters on a press call Thursday about the importance of his bill.
The bill Hoylman introduced in December, the Tax Returns Uniformly Made Public (TRUMP) Act, would require any presidential or vice presidential candidate to file at least five years of federal income tax returns with the state board of elections, which would make them public. If it were to pass, it would ensure that Trump could not run for reelection and future presidential candidates could not run while hiding their tax rates, donations to charity, potential personal interests behind their tax policies, and whether they are beholden to any outside groups or individuals, Hoylman said.
New York was the first state to introduce a bill of this nature, and dozens of others have followed suit.
Two weeks after New York, California state Sen. Mike McGuire (D) introduced a comparable bill that he expects to advance after hearings later this month.
“It will ensure that future presidential candidates will be barred from appearing on the California primary ballot unless they release their tax returns,” he told reporters Thursday. “The reason is that there are pressing questions that need to be answered before Election Day.”
While such a law could potentially prevent a candidate like Trump from running in certain states, it’s unlikely that any state that voted for Trump in 2016 — all of which have some Republican control — would pass such a measure. But Holyman maintained that it could still be an effective strategy.
“This isn’t limited to just Democratic legislatures,” he said. “But even if it were, and even if only one state passed this and even if it wasn’t a state Trump won, I think it would set a precedent that any president could not ignore. If a presidential candidate decided to ignore that state in terms of its electoral votes, what does it say about the candidate and what is he or she hiding?”
McGuire also noted that a number of Republicans, including Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Joni Ernst (R-IA), and at least two members of the House, have broken with their party to assert that Trump should release his returns.
“This is not a partisan issue,” McGuire said. “It’s about transparency and accountability in American government. This is a time-honored tradition that has made our democracy stronger.”
Not everyone is in agreement that statutory changes to state law are the best way to compel presidential candidates to disclose their financials. Writing in the New York Times, Pepperdine law professor Derek T. Muller said that Christie should veto New Jersey’s bill and other states should abandon their efforts because they are unconstitutional.
“It is rarely a good idea to try to resolve an ordinary political skirmish by making it a matter of statutory law,” he wrote. “The political process is a flexible tool for addressing such issues case-by-case; a statute is a monolithic, one-size-fits-all solution. The tax disclosure issue is better served by the former.”
Muller noted that New Jersey’s bill would apply broadly to third-party candidates, who he claims should not be compelled to share their tax returns. He also argued that candidates should retain control of their privacy and should suffer the political consequences of whatever decision they end up making about disclosure.