President Donald Trump on the campaign trail. Photo by Michael Vadon

In summary

California Democrats are advancing a bill that would require any presidential candidate (see: Donald Trump) to disclose his tax returns if they want to make it onto the state primary ballot next year. Good blue state politics—but is it legal?

For the second year in a row, California Democrats have passed a progressive crowd-pleaser: a bill that would require all presidential candidates to disclose their tax returns if they want to make it onto the state primary ballot next year.

And once again, Republicans are denouncing the proposal as partisan anti-Trump trolling masquerading as a transparency initiative, and say it is all but certain to be shot down in the courts.

What’s different this time is the man who occupies the governor’s mansion.

Last year, both the Assembly and Senate passed a virtually identical bill along party lines only to see it vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown. Whatever the bill’s “political attractiveness—even the merits,” Brown wrote, the idea rested on shaky constitutional ground and could invite future politicians to erect ever-higher barriers to entry for those hoping to run for office.

This year’s version passed the Senate on Thursday and is expected to sail through the Democratic-dominated Assembly before landing on the governor’s desk. Gov. Newsom has yet to say whether he will sign it.

Democrats insist this is just about good governance. “President Trump is a strong example of the need for this legislation, but he is not the only one,” said Sen. Mike McGuire of Healdsburg, the bill’s author, on the Senate floor last week.

Republicans were only too happy to take that argument at face value and suggest that the state apply these tax return requirements to all federal officeholders in California—the majority of whom Democrats. With that idea going nowhere, Sen. Brian Jones, a Republican from eastern San Diego County, castigated his Democratic colleagues for “playing the Resistance card.”

Lawmakers in other blue states such as Illinois, New Jersey and Washington are considering comparable proposals this year. Another bill died in Hawaii last month.

On Monday, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin announced that he would not be turning over the president’s tax returns, refusing a formal request from Democrats in Congress.

We covered the thorny constitutional issues raised by this idea when it came up the first time last year.

Here’s the CliffsNotes version:

  • The U.S. Constitution says a presidential candidate must be a natural born citizen over the age of 35 who has lived in the United States for at least 14 years. That’s it.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted that to mean that states cannot place additional requirements on would-be candidates. In the past, that has included term limits (which would require a candidate not to have previously held a certain office) along with rules forcing candidates to disclose some bit of information, such as their race or where they stand on a particular political issue.
  • But the Court has said that states are free to regulate the time, place and manner of elections, which include rules requiring candidates to pay filing fees, gather signatures or submit forms by certain deadlines.

So the key question is this: If California asks a candidate to publicize his or her tax returns, is that a constitutionally verboten “requirement” or a permissible “procedural regulation”?

Read the rest here.

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Ben Christopher

Ben covers California politics and elections. Prior to that, he was a contributing writer for CalMatters reporting on the state's economy and budget. Based out of the San Francisco Bay Area, he has written...