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PD Editorial: Candidates and their income tax returns

Richard Nixon’s most memorable statement may be this one, delivered in 1973: “People have got to know whether or not their president is a crook. Well, I am not a crook.”

Nixon wasn’t talking about Watergate. He was talking about his income taxes, because he was undergoing an audit by the Internal Revenue Service.

To reassure the American public, the 37th president released his income tax returns - a practice that has become a staple of presidential elections. Until, of course, this year, when President-elect Donald Trump refused to release his returns, citing an ongoing IRS audit.

Should presidential candidates release their tax returns? We think so. Voters deserve an opportunity to assess any potential conflicts or any ties to foreign interests.

Should it be a legal obligation? That’s a trickier question.

It would be required under legislation announced this week by state Sens. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, and Scott Weiner, D-San Francisco.

Their bill, which has yet to be formally introduced, would deny a spot on the California ballot to presidential and vice presidential candidate unless they release income tax returns dating back five years. A similar proposal is pending in New York.

“Transparency is a nonpartisan issue,” McGuire said in a statement announcing his proposal. “Voters not only deserve full disclosure of their future leader’s tax returns, they should be entitled to them.”

Forgive us, but we can’t resist editing the second sentence of McGuire’s statement. Nothing big. We’ll just move the apostrophe, making this reference plural: “Voters not only deserve full disclosure of their future leaders’ tax returns, they should be entitled to them.”

Presidents aren’t the only elected officials with potential conflicts-of-interest, and voters would benefit from more detailed disclosures from others seeking and holding high office. On that score, however, the record is decidedly mixed.

California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, one of the wealthiest members of Congress, has allowed reporters to comb through the joint returns she files with her husband, investor Richard Blum. Sen.-elect Kamala Harris and Rep. Linda Sanchez, her opponent, released their most recent income tax returns prior to this year’s election. Jerry Brown, on the other hand, hasn’t released any tax returns during his second stint as governor.

McGuire told Politico he would consider expanding his legislation to require gubernatorial candidates to release their taxes. Perhaps it should apply to all partisan officeholders in California, including legislators.

That might stand up to judicial scrutiny better than imposing a requirement on presidential candidates, who could contend that states can’t impose qualifications beyond those listed in the Constitution - an argument successfully employed to block efforts in some states to impose term limits on Congress.

Income tax returns aren’t the way to assess potential conflicts. State and federal candidates and elected officials must file conflict-of-interest reports. However, unlike tax returns, these reports tend to be quite general, exempting some assets and liabilities entirely and identifying others only in such broad ranges as “less than $1,000” or “more than $10,000.”

As McGuire and Weiner move forward, they should try to make those reports more detailed - and more accessible to the public. That would add a valuable layer of transparency, even if they don’t succeed in forcing the president-elect to produce his taxes.

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