Capitol Alert

It’s not just Trump. California’s new law could keep other presidential candidates off its ballot

California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill on Tuesday requiring President Donald Trump to release the last five years of his tax returns to get on the state’s 2020 primary ballot.

But Senate Bill 27, dubbed the “Presidential Tax Transparency and Accountability Act,” goes well beyond Trump. It includes future gubernatorial candidates and will also affect several Democratic presidential candidates.

Of the 12 highest-polling candidates, three would not currently qualify for a spot on California’s ballot, according to Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, who authored the proposal.

“This bill is all about equal opportunity and transparency for all, no matter whether you are a Democrat or Republican,” said state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, who authored the proposal. “Trump is absolutely a strong example of the need for this legislation, but he’s not the only one.”

The bill says “the candidate” must send the Secretary of State “copies of every income tax return the candidate filed with the Internal Revenue Service in the five most recent taxable years.”

McGuire, who has endorsed California Sen. Kamala Harris, said shortly after the bill signing that Biden would not presently appear on the March ballot because he had only released three years of tax returns as a 2020 contender.

The former vice president, however, has previously disclosed another 18 years of tax information — more than any other Democratic presidential candidate — beginning with releases he made as a vice presidential candidate during the 2008 election cycle.

On Tuesday afternoon, Biden’s campaign sent The Sacramento Bee all 21 years of tax information, thus satisfying McGuire’s interpretation of the new law.

The law states a candidate must sign a written consent form “granting the Secretary of State permission to publicly release a version of the candidate’s tax returns” with necessary redactions for Social Security numbers and personal contact information. That version of the tax returns would be posted on the Secretary of State’s website within five days of a candidate submitting the proper documents.

A formal process for submitting tax information will soon be set up by Secretary of State Alex Padilla, according to his office, as the law took effect immediately.

Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard and venture capitalist Andrew Yang have not yet disclosed their tax information.

Sawyer Hackett, a spokesman for Castro, said the 2020 contender “will release his taxes well before Iowa caucuses” are held on Feb. 3, 2020.

When asked about his tax information in a March interview, Yang told The Sacramento Bee, “I’m about to release my tax returns. They’re very boring. You know, I’ll have some financial disclosure.” In April, he told Mother Jones he’d release the information in the “coming weeks.” Months later, he has yet to release his tax records. Yang’s campaign did not respond when asked for an update.

Gabbard’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

But the issue of disclosing tax returns to get on California’s 2020 primary ballot could prove moot if Trump prevails in an all-but-certain legal challenge.

Tim Murtaugh, director of communications for Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign, previously told The Bee that “the Constitution is clear on the qualifications for someone to serve as president and states cannot add additional requirements on their own.”

Katrina Pierson, a senior adviser to Trump’s campaign, accused California of engaging in “election interference.” She wrote on Twitter, “Driven by their hate for our President, leftist Democrats continue to trample America’s Constitution in pursuit of power. It’s unconstitutional, unacceptable and the courts should immediately throw this law out.”

Newsom’s predecessor, Gov. Jerry Brown, didn’t release his own tax returns and vetoed a similar bill in 2017, warning that it “may not be constitutional” and could establish a “slippery slope” precedent.

Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School, said California will try to argue the new law taking effect immediately is about transparency over politics, despite the fact it cleared the Legislature on a party-line vote.

“This is politically motivated, which doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea,” Levinson said. “It means they’re trying to make a systemic change with the new president that they didn’t like.”

The issue of Trump’s taxes has received a lot of attention on the 2020 campaign trail, with scores of Democrats trying to outdo each other on transparency.

Harris has released 15 years of returns. She is followed by Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren — who released 13 years, 12 years and 11 years of tax returns, respectively.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke have all disclosed 10 years of tax returns.

Other states could soon follow in California’s footsteps. Records from the National Conference of State Legislatures’ Election Legislation Database show 17 other states considered bills this year to require presidential candidates to disclose their tax information in order to get their name on the state’s ballot.

Bills from 10 states outside California are still alive, and five of them — Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Washington — have already cleared one chamber this year. Hawaii’s plan calls for presidential candidates to release their most recent tax return, while North Carolina’s proposal would force candidates to disclose the last 10 years of information. All other states with surviving bills match California’s five-year requirement, though some states want to place identical requirements on candidates running for vice president.

“The longer Trump fights, the more momentum this bill receives,” McGuire said. “We believe this is a reasonable request.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated to reflect that Biden has disclosed a total of 21 total years’ worth of tax returns.

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Bryan Anderson is a political reporter for The Bee. He covers the California Legislature and reports on wildfires and transportation. He also hosts The Bee’s “California Nation” podcast.