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, [email protected] He wrote this commentary for CalMatters. To read his past commentary for CalMatters, please click here.

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