SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – California will become the first state to require presidential candidates to release their tax returns in order to land on the state’s primary ballot, under legislation signed Tuesday by Gov. Gavin Newsom.
Inspired by President Donald Trump’s refusal to release his returns during the 2016 campaign, the measure coined the “Presidential Tax Transparency and Accountability Act” forces candidates to reveal at least the last five years of their tax returns. The measure, which was vetoed in 2017 by former Gov. Jerry Brown, means California voters could have access to Trump’s tax returns in 2020.
In a signing statement, Newsom said California has the constitutional authority to set its own election rules and that Senate Bill 27 should “be a national standard.”
“As one of the largest economies in the world and home to one in nine Americans eligible to vote, California has a special responsibility to require this information of presidential and gubernatorial candidates,” the Democratic governor said. “The disclosure required by this bill will shed light on conflicts of interest, self-dealing, or influence from domestic and foreign business interests.”
Though the bill is meant to force Trump’s hand in the upcoming election, it will apply to Democratic candidates as well. It will also require future gubernatorial candidates to make their tax returns available to voters on the Secretary of State’s website.
The bill’s Democratic authors say their main goal is to ensure that candidates aren’t running for office for personal profit. Lawmakers passed the bill as an urgency measure to cement the requirements in time for when voters hit the polls in February.
“If he has nothing to hide, President Trump shouldn’t be afraid to give American voters what they want, a copy of his tax returns,” said state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg. “This commonsense legislation applies equally to all candidates, from all political parties, including the governor of California.”
This isn’t the first time California Democrats have tried to pry loose Trump’s tax returns, as the Legislature passed a similar bill in 2017. But Brown, who didn’t release his returns during his campaign, warned it may be unconstitutional and vetoed it.
“While I recognize the political attractiveness – even the merits – of getting President Trump’s tax returns, I worry about the political perils of individual states seeking to regulate presidential elections in this manner,” Brown said in his veto message. “Today we require tax returns, but what would be next? Five years of health records? A certified birth certificate? High school report cards?”
But Newsom, who released years of returns during his 2018 campaign, notes that his decision to split from his predecessor is backed by constitutional scholars and attorneys at some of the state’s most prominent firms.
Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of University of California, Berkeley, School of Law, says SB 27 passes legal muster.
“It does not keep any candidate from being on the ballot so long as he or she complies with a simple requirement that is meant to provide California voters crucial information,” he said in a statement.
Theodore Boutrous Jr., partner at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher and David Boies, chairman of Boies Schiller Flexner both called the measure constitutional.
Ultimately it will likely be the courts that decide whether California can implement the ballot access requirement. Though the White House declined to comment on the bill, Trump’s campaign called it unconstitutional and a violation of the First Amendment.
Trump could decide to sue or simply stay off the California ballot as he faces little competition in the Republican primary.
There is also legal precedent to consider, particularly a 1995 U.S. Supreme Court decision involving an Arkansas law that denied ballot access to candidates that had served three terms in the House or two terms in the Senate.
In U.S. Term Limits Inc. v. Thornton, the high court tossed the law with the majority ruling that the Tenth Amendment didn’t provide states the right to set term limit qualifications. However, the dissent raised the possibility that states could set reasonable qualifications for federally elected officials.
The bill’s legislative analysis admits that the legality of SB 27 is far from a sure thing.
“Some legal experts contend that the previous court’s guidance regarding congressional candidates would likely extend to the office of the president. Other legal experts contend that similar tax disclosure bills are unconstitutional as the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly held that states cannot use the ballot as a political weapon,” the analysis done earlier this month states.
Many other states are considering similar tax return requirements for presidential candidates, most notably New York.
New York state Sen. Brad Hoylman, D-Manhattan, said he hopes the Empire State will follow California’s lead in 2020.
“No taxes, no presidency!,” he tweeted.
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