An unprecedented effort to force President Trump and other White House hopefuls to disclose their personal income tax returns was blocked by Gov. Jerry Brown on Sunday, who argued the plan would likely be overturned by the courts.
Brown's veto of Senate Bill 149 put him at odds with legislative Democrats who insisted its mandate for five years of income tax information would help voters make an informed choice. In his veto message, though, the governor said the proposal could have led to other litmus tests for candidates.
"Today we require tax returns, but what would be next?" Brown wrote. "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?"
Democrats in the Legislature introduced the plan last December, angered by Trump's refusal to disclose information about his personal finances.
"For decades, every president has put their personal beliefs aside and put our country first and released their returns," state Sen. Mike McGuire (D-Healdsburg), the bill’s author, said last month. "The American people shouldn’t be in the dark about their president’s financial entanglements."
Trump is the first president in four decades to fully conceal his personal income tax filings from voters. He cited pending audits of those documents during the 2016 campaign and has since deflected new calls for the information. Democrats said the state legislation was an effort to keep that from happening again in 2020.
"This bill is about giving the American people the honesty and transparency they deserve from anyone who wishes to serve as their president," said state Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), the bill's coauthor, shortly after it passed the Legislature.
Most Republicans derided SB 149 as little more than an attempt to embarrass Trump. They pointed out Brown failed to release copies of his tax returns during campaigns for governor in 2010 and 2014. He was also one of a handful of presidential candidates to eschew the practice, releasing only part of his tax returns during his third unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 1992.
The bill sparked a robust debate as to whether any state could impose such a litmus test for access to its presidential primary ballot. Legislative lawyers wrote an opinion just before its final passage suggesting SB 149 was unconstitutional, and critics pounced on U.S. Supreme Court rulings against qualification rules imposed on congressional candidates as proof the presidential limit would also be struck down.
Laurence Tribe, a Harvard University law professor, insisted that the California bill would pass constitutional muster. He and two other legal scholars wrote that the proposal fell on the side of being constitutionally allowed when evaluating "permissible ballot access laws and impermissible attempts to add qualifications."
In the end, though, Brown sided with the skeptics. And even the measure ultimately survived, legal challenges would undoubtedly have been mounted.
Although two GOP lawmakers voted for the bill during legislative debate, leaders of the California Republican Party were prepared to circumvent the state's presidential primary in awarding delegates in 2020 had SB 149 been enacted.
The bill was one of two closely watched efforts by California’s legislative Democrats to harness the state's electoral clout in hopes of thwarting a Trump reelection effort. The other proposal — moving the state’s presidential primary from June to early March — was signed into law by Brown late last month.