California lawmakers approved a bill on Thursday to force President Donald Trump to publicly release his tax returns ahead of the 2020 election, setting the stage for another legal showdown between the state and the Trump administration.
The proposal dubbed the “Presidential Tax Transparency and Accountability Act” passed both chambers of the Legislature on a party-line vote. Democrats say the measure will serve as a model for providing voters with information about candidate’s finances, while Republicans argue it is unconstitutional.
The bill by state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, now heads to Gov. Gavin Newsom, who released six years of his own tax returns during his 2018 run for governor and is expected to sign it.
It would require Trump to file the last five years of his tax returns with the Secretary of State to get his name on the 2020 primary ballot. The information would then be published online, with contact information, Social Security numbers and medical information redacted from the public.
Tim Murtaugh, director of communications for Trump’s 2020 campaign, said California has no standing to pursue the president’s tax records.
“The Constitution is clear on the qualifications for someone to serve as president and states cannot add additional requirements on their own,” Murtaugh said in a statement. “The bill also violates the 1st Amendment right of association since California can’t tell political parties which candidates their members can or cannot vote for in a primary election.”
Former Gov. Jerry Brown, who declined to release his own tax returns, vetoed a proposal similar to McGuire’s in 2017, warning that it “may not be constitutional” and could establish a “slippery slope” precedent.
“Today we require tax returns, but what would be next?” Brown wrote in his veto message. “Five years of health records? A certified birth certificate? High school report cards? And will these requirements vary depending on which political party is in power?”
California Republican Party Chairwoman Jessica Patterson agreed with Brown.
“I urge Governor Gavin Newsom to veto this bill, just as Jerry Brown did when he was governor,” she said.
McGuire has previously called Brown’s veto “hogwash,” insisting the state has the authority to administer ballot procedures.
He said the bill goes beyond Trump, given it also applies to Democrats running for president — many of whom have already released recent years of tax returns.
Joe Biden, the former vice president now running for president, released the last three years of his tax returns earlier this week but would need to provide an additional two years to appear on the ballot in March 2020.
“This bill is all about equal opportunity and transparency for all, no matter whether you are a Democrat or Republican,” McGuire said.
Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School, said she is torn on the issue of the measure’s constitutionality and that the outcome of a potential legal fight would largely depend on the judge who hears the case.
She said the Trump administration could present compelling arguments in court to strike down the law by claiming the Constitution created a firm set of eligibility requirements related to age and citizenship. On the other hand, California could successfully argue it has administrative jurisdiction over its ballots.
Levinson said political motives could also be a factor worthy of consideration.
Democrats, whose party has dominated Republicans in recent elections, carved out an amendment to require gubernatorial candidates to release the last five years of their tax returns. Even so, they couldn’t get a single Republican to support the proposal.
“It is clear it’s Democratic lawmakers who are voting for this,” Levinson said. “It’s not a bipartisan effort. It’s a response to what Trump has done. That doesn’t mean it’s bad policy, but the question is if a Democratic candidate failed to release his tax returns, would a Republican push for something similar?”
If Newsom signs the bill, California would become the first state to compel Trump to release his taxes in order to qualify for the state’s primary ballot. It might not be the last.
Records from the National Conference of State Legislatures’ Election Legislation Database show 17 other states have considered bills this year to require presidential candidates to release their tax returns to get on the state’s ballot.
Bills from 10 other states are still alive, and five of them — Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Washington — have already cleared one chamber this year.
A plan in Hawaii calls on presidential candidates to disclose their most recent tax return, while a proposal North Carolina calls for candidates to release the last 10 years of information. All other states with surviving bills match California’s five-year requirement, with some states also placing identical requirements on candidates running for vice president.
Trump has vigorously attacked states that have pursued his tax records, falsely claiming voters don’t care about the documents. He’s criticized New York in particular over a proposal Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed on Monday to allow Congress to access his state taxes.
“I won the 2016 Election partially based on no Tax Returns while I am under audit (which I still am), and the voters didn’t care,” Trump wrote on Twitter on May 11. “Now the Radical Left Democrats want to again relitigate this matter. Make it a part of the 2020 Election!”
A Quinnipiac University Poll conducted months before the 2016 presidential election found that a majority of both Republican and Democratic likely voters wanted to see Trump’s tax returns. After the election, nearly three-fourths of adults surveyed in a Washington Post/ABC News poll agreed Trump should share his tax records.