Two views on California's 'Trump Tax Returns' bill

Special from CalMatters | 

Recently California Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law a requirement that President Donald Trump will be required to open his undisclosed tax returns so that he can appear on the California primary ballot.

Below are two views of the action. 


Newsom scored political points by signing the Trump tax bill. But here’s the downside

By Dan Schnur, Special to CalMatters

Give Gavin Newsom credit on this one. Signing a bill that would require Donald Trump to disclose his tax returns to qualify for next year’s California primary ballot was a savvy political maneuver for our governor.

Not only does it reinforce his pre-eminence as the state’s preeminent Resistor-in-Chief, his decision unites his party behind him at a time when he is preparing to take on difficult policy challenges that are likely to divide it.

California Democrats may not agree on housing or education or tax policy, but they are fully united in their animosity toward Trump. Newsom is smart enough to realize that any criticism he takes from his own party on these and other issues will be muffled by the unanimity of support he will receive from taking potshots at the president. So kudos to a politically adroit governor for a shrewd political stratagem.

But the practical impact of Newsom’s maneuver is negligible and the potential downside is considerable. 

The question of whether a state can impose additional requirements on a presidential candidate beyond those specifically outlined in the U.S. Constitution is an unsettled one. Legal experts are lining up on both sides of the argument with a level of ferocity that suggests a drawn-out court battle. 
California’s primary ballot deadline is coming up this November, so the likelihood of the case making its way to the Supreme Court and being acted upon there in the next 90 days is slim. 

The much more probable outcome is that a court decision will come long after the 2020 election, once Trump has been returned to office or is comfortably ensconced back in civilian life. Either way, it won’t affect him or his chances for re-election.

Even in the improbable event that the courts rule in Newsom’s favor and do it quickly enough to matter next year, the fact that the bill was written only as a requirement for the primary ballot means that Trump’s allies will be able to circumvent it with great ease.

Remember, Trump still maintains almost 90% approval among California’s remaining Republicans and the GOP presidential primary rules do not allow non-party members to participate. Which means that unless a credible primary challenger to Trump emerges, it won’t be that hard–or that expensive—for his supporters to mount a write-in campaign that would allow him to claim the state’s delegates anyway. 

It’s also worth keeping in mind how much latitude the national parties have in setting the rules by which they award delegates to presidential candidates. So even if another Republican candidate were to pull off a huge primary upset, the GOP would not hesitate to reverse the outcome of a state primary using the argument that California Democrats unfairly prevented Trump’s ballot access and the national convention would simply vote to seat an alternate pro-Trump delegate slate. 

Much more troublesome is the precedent that this legislation sets. When Jerry Brown vetoed this same bill one year ago, he warned of the possibilities of states imposing other requirements for their own partisan purposes, writing:

“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?”

Brown’s examples were deliberately trivial. 

But imagine a state like Texas or Georgia—with a culturally conservative legislature and potential battleground status—imposing a more strategically purposeful requirement for the general election, such as some sort of religious litmus test designed to disqualify the Democratic presidential nominee. 

Newsom’s supporters in deep-blue California may dismiss the legitimacy of such a maneuver. But there are plenty of Bible Belt voters who would argue that faith-based criteria are just as important for their decisions as a candidate’s tax returns.

I am not a Trump supporter. I believe strongly that he should publicly disclose his tax returns and all other relevant financial information. 

But the way to remove a candidate from office who refuses to disclose this information is to convince the American people that they should vote to defeat him. A legislative gimmick that attempts to change the rules of a contest while it underway serves only to cheapen the democratic process. 

The most straightforward and most effective strategy to get the nation’s leaders to release their tax returns is to motivate voters to replace a president who won’t make his financial information public with a president who will.
Dan Schnur is a professor at USC’s Annenberg School of Communications and at UC-Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies, He wrote this commentary for CalMatters. To read his past commentaries for CalMatters, please click herehere, and here.


What’s Trump hiding? Newsom was right to insist presidential candidates release their tax returns

By Garry South, Special to CalMatters

Gov. Gavin Newsom set off a blizzard of criticism last week by signing a law requiring that all presidential and gubernatorial candidates provide five years’ of income tax returns in order to appear on California’s primary ballot. 

Most of the pearl-clutching has plopped into the following three baskets:
  • There surely must be something unconstitutional about a state setting ballot-access requirements on candidates for president. 
  • Newsom’s Democratic predecessor, Jerry Brown, summarily vetoed a nearly identical bill in 2017. 
  • This action will set up a “slippery slope,” with other states imposing all kinds of inane and unfair ballot restrictions on presidential candidates.
I’m neither a constitutional lawyer nor scholar–don’t even play one on TV–but I can read plain English, and as several real constitutional experts have opined, I see nothing whatsoever unconstitutional about this measure. The Constitution clearly gives states the power to determine how their presidential electors are chosen.

And there is urgency. Newsom was particularly justified because the United States is facing an unprecedented circumstance with arguably the most utterly corrupt president ever to sit in the White House. 

California already establishes various kinds of requirements on candidates for public office such as filing fees, a certain number of verified voter signatures in lieu of fees, and most important and germane, so-called statements of economic interests. 

Under state law, every candidate running for office must timely file these disclosures listing investments, interests in property, loans and all income received during the previous 12 months. These forms can be maddeningly vague, listing assets and income in broad monetary ranges that preclude determining exactly how much a candidate is worth, owns or makes. 

But if candidates do not submit the statement, they are denied access to the ballot. Actual tax returns are much more important and revealing, informing voters about whether candidates are conflicted, pay their taxes, or are subject to undue influence by debtors or special interests.  

Some Democrats and the Republican Party are seizing on the fact that Newsom’s Democratic predecessor, Jerry Brown, vetoed a similar bill in 2017.  There are two points to make about that action: 
  • Brown refused to release his own taxes when he ran for governor in both 2010 and 2014, so had little moral standing to impose the requirement on anyone else. Newsom has released his tax returns every time he’s been on the ballot, including when running for lieutenant governor and governor. This law would apply equally to him.  
  • In his veto message, Brown struck a flippant tone, asking hypothetically what would be next, “high school report cards?” It was a disservice to equate tax returns with the grade someone received in Mr. Klosky’s sophomore chemistry class. 
Tax returns offer a basic roadmap to a candidate’s finances, income, debts, and potential conflicts, not to mention whether they give to charity. 

I got into an exchange on Twitter with a Brown supporter who defended Brown’s withholding his tax returns in 2010 by claiming that he promised to produce them if his billionaire Republican opponent made her returns public. Since she didn’t, neither did he. 

But this misses the point: Releasing a candidate’s income tax returns is an important benefit for the voters, not just some cynical game of chicken to play with your opponent.

In the 1998 governor’s race, my candidate, Gray Davis, released a full 10 years of his taxes, not waiting for his two multi-millionaire Democratic opponents to release theirs, or conditioning the release on their doing likewise. 

In the 2006 gubernatorial primary, I was chief strategist for Controller Steve Westly’s campaign for governor. He released 10 years of his returns in 2005, 171 days before our Democratic opponent released his, and 212 days before Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger made his available.             
With respect to the “slippery slope” argument of Brown and others, it’s impossible to predict what some states controlled by Republicans might try to do to retaliate. 

But California has always been a leader among the states, not a place held hostage by fear of what other states may or may not do. Numerous states are currently considering similar tax-disclosure laws, including some in which legislation has already passed one house or the other, and they should.
Not only has Donald Trump broken with more than 40 years of precedent in refusing to release his taxes voluntarily, he is also going to unprecedented efforts to keep his taxes from public view in every other way. 

This includes instructing the Internal Revenue Service and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to refuse to turn over his federal returns to Congress, despite a longstanding federal law that clearly stipulates tax returns “shall” be made available if chairs of designated congressional committees request them. 

And it’s not just his federal returns. Trump has sued to block a New York state law that would allow his state returns to be made available to the same congressional committee chairs. Why such frantic efforts at secrecy if he has nothing to hide?

Extraordinary times demand extraordinary measures. Newsom was right–morally, legally and politically—to sign this measure into law. Good for him for being a Democratic governor with the courage to do so, and to take the resulting flak.  
Garry South is a veteran Democratic campaign strategist who has played central roles in four California gubernatorial campaigns, He wrote this commentary for CalMatters. To read his past commentary for CalMatters, please click here.

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