After the deeply dismaying 2016 presidential election, the Democratic-controlled California Legislature dedicated itself to “the resistance,” with leaders saying they would stand up to the new president to protect the state’s values from his more onerous policies. Some of the resulting legislation, such as new laws to protect undocumented immigrants and to pursue California’s climate goals over the objections of the White House, have been necessary to stop real harm. Others, not so much.
Among the latter was a 2017 bill that would have required any candidate who wished to appear on the state’s presidential primary ballot to provide his or her tax returns first. The bill was obviously a slap at President Trump, who stubbornly refused to share his returns during the 2016 race despite long-standing tradition. Many Americans were rightly outraged at Trump’s recalcitrance, and many were suspicious of his motivations for keeping his taxes secret.
Of course, presidential candidates ought to share their returns with the public. Voters should insist on it so that they can learn about any financial conflicts of interest or efforts at tax avoidance. But the Legislature’s effort to create a California-only requirement aimed at one particular president went too far. Then-Gov. Jerry Brown, who is as much a critic of Trump’s policies as any other Democratic lawmaker in the state, agreed. He vetoed the bill, seeing it for the overreach it was. Where would this lead, he wondered in his veto message? Would the state soon require candidates to release their health records and high school report cards?
It should be up to voters to punish candidates for their lack of transparency, not partisan state legislatures.
That should have been the end of it. But a similar bill returned this year. The new “Presidential Tax Transparency and Accountability Act” would require President Trump and all other presidential and gubernatorial candidates who want to appear on the California primary ballot in 2020 and beyond to submit five years of tax return to the Secretary of State. It remains a bad idea. Nevertheless, both houses of the Legislature passed it again, perhaps thinking that new Gov. Gavin Newsom would be more inclined to sign it than Brown.
If Newsom does sign the bill, it would make California the first state to adopt this new requirement and it might embolden other states considering similar legislation. He should not. It should be up to voters to punish candidates for their lack of transparency, not partisan state legislatures.
A tax return requirement might sound reasonable to Democrats, but how about a birth certificate? In an obviously political dig at then-President Barack Obama, who had been plagued by birthers throughout his two terms (Trump among them), the Republican-controlled Arizona Legislature in 2011 voted to require presidential candidates to provide birth certificates before they could be included on the state’s ballot. That bill was vetoed. Do we really think that each state should be placing its own new requirements on presidential candidates above and beyond those laid out in the U.S. Constitution? Do we want partisan state legislatures making those decisions based on which presidents they support and which they oppose?
While federal law gives states the authority to regulate some ballot access for federal elections, it’s not clear if they even have the legal right to place further restrictions on presidential candidates beyond what is already required, a point made by the California Legislature’s own policy analysts. The Constitution requires only that a candidate be 35 years old, a natural-born U.S. citizen and a resident of the U.S. for at least 14 years.
If this bill is signed into law, it will likely be challenged in court. This would put California in the position of wasting time and money fighting for a dubious law that could deny millions of its own residents the right to vote for the candidate of their choice in the 2020 primary election. That’s not right.
Newsom may be a Democrat, but he’s also the leader of a state that is home to more than 5 million registered Republicans. This is one point where the governor must put aside the politics of resistance and make the right nonpartisan decision for all Californians.