SACRAMENTO — President Trump will be forced to decide between getting on California’s presidential primary ballot and releasing his tax returns, under a bill signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom on Tuesday, which is sure to be met with legal challenges.
The new law will require Trump, other presidential contenders, and future candidates for governor to publicly release at least five years of their income tax returns in order to get their name on the state’s primary ballot. It’s a move to force transparency by Trump, who’s bucked decades of presidential precedent by keeping his returns under wraps.
Former Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a previous version of the bill in 2017, arguing that it could create a slippery slope of “individual states seeking to regulate presidential elections.” But Newsom argued in his signing statement for the bill, SB 27, that “these are extraordinary times and states have a legal and moral duty to do everything in their power to ensure leaders seeking the highest offices meet minimal standards, and to restore public confidence.”
“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 governor wrote.
The bill doesn’t mention Trump by name, but it’s another clear broadside against the president from a state that has sued his administration more than 50 times since he took office. Trump has refused to release his tax returns, arguing that he was under audit by the IRS — becoming the first major party White House nominee not to offer the public scrutiny into his finances since former President Gerald Ford in 1976.
The legislation — the first of its kind in the U.S. — is certain to spur lawsuits, and experts are divided about whether it could pass constitutional muster. In announcing Newsom’s decision, the governor’s office released statements from several lawyers and legal scholars attesting to its constitutionality.
“The U.S. Constitution gives each state the authority to determine how that state’s electors are chosen, limited only by compliance with other constitutional provisions, such as equal protection,” argued prominent lawyer David Boies. “No other constitutional provision is implicated or violated by a state’s requirement that a Presidential candidate disclose tax returns.”
The bill does not apply to the general election ballot, only the primary ballot, which experts say gives it a better chance in court. It will also cover candidates for governor — Newsom released years of his tax returns during his campaign, while Brown did not.
If the law goes into effect and Trump refuses to release his returns, there’s unlikely to be any electoral impact for the president, who appears virtually assured to win the GOP nomination. But a ballot without Trump could depress turnout among Republican voters in the Golden State’s top-two primary, a perilous prospect for the party’s down-ballot candidates next year.
The measure passed the state legislature on a mostly party-line vote, and was condemned by state Republican leaders Tuesday.
“This bill is clearly unconstitutional and Gov. Newsom should have listened to the concerns of his predecessor, Gov. Brown, who vetoed it two years ago,” California GOP chair Jessica Millan Patterson said in a statement.