California tax return mandate for presidential candidates becomes law, riling Trump campaign
President Donald Trump will be barred from appearing on the primary ballot next March in California without releasing his tax returns under a new and controversial state law whose author, a local legislator, predicts the tax-return mandate will survive an expected court challenge.
Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law Tuesday a bill from Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, that requires presidential and gubernatorial candidates to file the last five years of income tax returns with the California Secretary of State’s office in order to appear on primary ballots.
The move instantly sets up a legal battle over the mechanics and legality of California imposing a mandate affecting a national electoral process.
U.S. presidential candidates have for decades voluntarily released personal tax information, though they have not been required to do so.
Trump has refused to divulge details of his income, but while he has cited an ongoing federal examination for his reticence, being the subject of an IRS audit does not preclude individuals from divulging such information.
While Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns catalyzed Senate Bill 27, McGuire said the issue was bigger than one person, describing his bill as an attempt to enshrine a standard of transparency so far adhered to by almost everyone who has sought the White House.
“Has it created some uncomfortable situations in presidential races? Hell yeah,” McGuire said. “But they’ve also known that there is a greater good, and that greater good is transparency and national security.”
California recently moved up its primary election, which in 2020 will be held March 3. States lawmakers can govern the time, place and manner of primary elections, but that authority doesn’t extend to general elections.
David Levine, a law professor at UC Hastings, said he thought McGuire’s bill had a “good shot” of withstanding any potential legal challenging because it was narrowly worded to affect the primary election. Levine likened the requirement to a mandatory filing fee for candidates.
“I think this is a legitimate exercise of state power,” Levine said.
Jessica Levinson, a law professor at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles, said the question of the new law’s legality would hinge on whether it is seen by courts as a new requirement for candidacy, which would not be allowed, or whether it was a new “ballot access rule,” which would be legal.
The difference right now is “a line drawn in the sand on a windy day” because of the lack of legal precedent, she said.
“Honestly, legally speaking, there’s a good chance that this will be overturned,” she said.
Trump’s campaign certainly hopes that’s the case. Tim Murtaugh, spokesman for the president’s reelection campaign, cited a fleeting ideological alliance with former California Gov. Jerry Brown, who rejected similar legislation in 2017.
“There are very good reasons why the very liberal Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed this bill two years ago — it’s unconstitutional and it opens up the possibility for states to load up more requirements on candidates in future elections,” Murtaugh said in a statement. “What’s next, five years of health records?”
That’s almost a verbatim quote of Brown’s veto letter: “Today we require tax returns, but what would be next? 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?”