Nearly nine months into his term, President Donald Trump has still not released his tax returns, having cited an IRS audit in April as the reason for non-disclosure. Although there are no legal requirements for presidential candidates to disclose tax returns, he is the only major candidate since 1972 who has not done so. With President Trump owning so many business holdings, many have raised questions about potential conflicts of interest between his businesses and policymaking. Those questions have led some state lawmakers to take action, proposing legislation that would require candidates to release their tax returns to the public to be eligible to be on the ballot for the Presidential election.
Last week, California lawmakers passed a bill that requires presidential candidates on the state ballot to release the past five years of tax returns. California isn't alone. Since the November 2016 election, lawmakers in 28 states have proposed legislation requiring presidential candidates to disclose their tax returns (check out the map below to see which states, and there's also a detailed chart at the end of this post). Surprisingly, it's not just states that went for Hillary Clinton that have proposed bills. Arizona, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Wisconsin all went to Trump, but have seen introduced legislation that would require disclosure of tax returns.
Many of the bills are modeled after legislation introduced in New York by State Senator Brad Hoylman (D) in 2016, called the Tax Returns Uniformly Made Public (“TRUMP”) Act. That bill (NY SB 8217) would require presidential and vice presidential candidates to release their last five years of tax returns no later than 50 days before the election. If a candidate has not met that requirement, the name of that candidate will not appear on the state ballot. Senator Hoylman introduced a similar bill (NY SB 26) this year.
Other lawmakers have taken a different strategy, like State Senator Michael Barrett (D) in Massachusetts, whose bill (MA SB 365) would prohibit Massachusetts voters in the Electoral College from voting for a candidate who has not complied with its tax return disclosure requirements. This restriction would even apply to candidates in party primaries.
The legality of these bills is not entirely clear. In the 1983 U.S. Supreme Court case Anderson v. Celebrezze, the Court held that state-imposed ballot restrictions for presidential races had national implications that had to be considered. In U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton in 1995, the Court struck down state-imposed term limits on congressional candidates, holding that states had no authority to impose additional requirements for holding office in Congress than were required under the U.S. Constitution. However, in Bush v. Gore in 2000, the Court reaffirmed the right of states to have broad authority to conduct elections.
State legislation to compel national presidential candidates to disclose information isn't new. When President Barack Obama was a candidate, legislators in several states introduced proposals to require the disclosure of a birth certificate for a candidate to be placed on the ballot as a presidential candidate. Arizona even passed such a bill out of the legislature, but Republican Governor Jan Brewer vetoed it.
Lawmakers in Congress have also proposed federal legislation to compel presidential candidates to disclose tax returns. U.S. Senator Ron Wyden (D) of Oregon introduced bills both last year (US S.2929) and this year (U.S. S. 26) that would have required presidential candidates to disclose returns from the three most recent taxable years within 15 days after receiving a major party's nomination. Representatives Anna Eshoo (D-CA) and Thomas Garrett, Jr. (D-VA) both introduced bills in the House (U.S. H.R. 305 and U.S. H.R. 1938, respectively), but with Republicans controlling Congress, the bills went nowhere.
Most of these bills will likely not become law, but it's interesting to see how presidential politics trickle down to the state-level lawmaking process. For a detailed table of introduced bills, click on the button below.