State lawmakers are taking another shot at enacting legislation that would force President Donald Trump to release his tax returns if he wants to appear on the ballot in New Jersey for the 2020 presidential election.
A bill that easily cleared the state Senate yesterday doesn’t mention Trump by name, but its language clearly targets the Republican president and his decision to break with decades of tradition by not making his tax returns public prior to the 2016 election.
To make it onto the state’s ballot in 2020 and beyond, all candidates for both president and vice president would be required by the legislation to release federal income-tax returns covering at least five tax years preceding the election. The measure would also prohibit Electoral College electors from voting for any candidate who did not comply with the disclosure requirement.
A similar bill cleared the Democratic-controlled Legislature in 2017 but was rejected by then-Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican who said it was “unconstitutional” and politically motivated. Before yesterday’s 23-11 vote in the Senate, Sen. Joseph Pennacchio (R-Morris) made an unsuccessful motion to amend the measure to cover every candidate seeking a seat in the state Legislature.
Currently, state-level candidates must file a personal financial disclosure statement with the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission, but those forms are far less revealing than federal tax returns as the only things that generally must be disclosed are sources of income and assets exceeding $100.
Republican talks of ‘hypocrisy’
For his part, Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, has only released the first two pages of his own federal tax returns. The governor has made additional tax forms available for reporters to inspect, but only for a limited time. Murphy’s full returns have not been posted online in the same manner the bill would require for presidential and vice-presidential candidates.
“If the governor signs this legislation he will join in the hypocrisy,” Pennacchio said yesterday.
But sponsors defended the measure by citing a need for New Jersey voters to be able to make a fully informed decision when they go to the polls next year to determine who will serve in the White House for the following four years.
“This transparency is common sense, which is why it has been the norm for so many decades,” said Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen).
There’s no official federal requirement that candidates for president release tax returns to the public. But the tradition had been followed by presidential hopefuls from both parties for several decades until Trump, who runs a family real-estate empire, refused to do when running against Democrat Hillary Clinton. He’s remained dug in on the issue even as questions have been raised about potential business ties he may have with Russia and whether they may be influencing his decision-making on foreign policy.
It’s possible that the U.S. House of Representatives, now under Democratic control after last year’s midterm elections, could obtain Trump’s tax returns under an obscure law written in the 1920s. U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-9th) has been leading that effort in Congress through the House Ways and Means Committee. But it would likely be opposed by Trump and could become the source of a lengthy court battle between lawmakers and the president.
A ‘reasonable’ request
The New Jersey disclosure legislation proposes compelling Trump to release his tax returns by making it a condition of being able to appear on the state’s official ballot during a presidential election. In fact, the bill’s language says a candidate’s name “shall not be printed upon the ballot” if they have not released their returns at least 50 days before the date of the election.
To appear on the ballot, a candidate would have to file their tax returns with the New Jersey Department of State, which would then be required to post them on its website within seven days. The legislation would also allow for redactions to be made in consultation with the state Attorney General’s Office.
“With the amount of power a president has, it is only reasonable to require full financial disclosure,” said Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Mercer). “We deserve to know that the highest office in our land is clear of corruption.”
Violation of rights?
Other sponsors of the bill have previously expressed confidence that the measure will pass constitutional muster, citing language that grants states wide latitude when it comes to administering elections.
But Pennacchio, the Republican senator, yesterday echoed some of the concerns raised by Christie in his 2017 veto. He said they include possible violations of the rights to free speech and equal protection.
“Elections will be decided even before the people get a chance to vote,” Pennacchio said.
Asked after yesterday’s voting session about Pennacchio’s call for state lawmakers to hold themselves to the same standard they want to set for Trump, Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) suggested presidential candidates deserve a higher level of scrutiny.
“Do we do mayors and council people, too, and school-board members? I don’t think you need to do it at that level,” Sweeney said.