Ground Game

A growing movement would force presidential candidates to release tax returns

President Donald Trump.
EPA/Molly Riley / POOL
President Donald Trump.

While President Trump has been focused on battles inside Washington and around the world, quietly creeping up on him are potentially large political fights in state capitals across the nation.

The effort to pass legislation requiring presidential and vice presidential candidates to release five years of tax returns in order to appear on individual state ballots began as a novel bill in Trump’s home state of New York. It has now ballooned to half the nation. On Tuesday, Delaware became the 25th state to introduce a bill nearly identical to New York’s.

In a few weeks, Maine state Representative Seth Berry, a Democrat, said he expects his bill — No. 26 — to be formally introduced.


In fact, once Maine is added to the mix, five of the six New England states — all but New Hampshire — will have taken up the legislation.

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New York state Senator Brad Hoylman was the first legislator to file what became the model legislation for the rest of the country. Hoylman filed the Tax Returns Uniformly Made Public, or T.R.U.M.P. (get it?), in December, mainly inspired by Harvard Law School professor Laurence Tribe, who suggested this approach would pass constitutional muster.

The whole reason that this has come up, of course, is that Trump was the first presidential nominee in more than 40 years not to release any prior year tax returns. The law requires him as a candidate to fill out financial disclosure forms of his holdings (and face perjury charges for misstatements), but releasing tax returns themselves has simply been a political tradition since President Nixon.

Trump said he didn’t want to release his own returns because he was under audit by the Internal Revenue Service, a claim that the IRS, by policy, cannot confirm. The IRS, however, said that taxpayers are free to release their returns even if under audit. Trump has also said that only the press cares about seeing his returns — even though a vast majority of Americans in polls last fall said they would like to see them.

“This bill is about transparency. Presidents are subject to the same conflict-of-interest laws that his Cabinet and other lawmakers are,” Hoylman, the New York state senator, said. “I am heartened by the fact that so many other states are joining in the effort.”


Predictably most of these states are traditionally Democratic. Some, like Maine, Massachusetts, Maryland, Vermont, and New Jersey could see the bills approved by state legislatures but then vetoed by Republican governors.

“Look, do I think that Chris Christie will sign this into law? No,” said New Jersey Senate majority leader Loretta Weinberg, a Democrat. “But we filed this bill really to make a point.”

The author of the Massachusetts bill, state Senator Mike Barrett, a Lexington Democrat, said he, too, was inspired by the New York bill and touched base with Tribe. He added a few local provisions that would also require presidential and vice presidential candidates to fill out the same statement of financial interests that all Massachusetts candidates must.

In an interview, Barrett said he approaches the bill with a good-government lens, not a partisan one.

So far, Governor Charlie Baker hasn’t taken a position on the bill.


“Governor Baker will carefully review any legislation that comes to his desk and as a candidate for governor released his own tax returns to the public,” said Elizabeth Guyton, Baker’s communications director.

Should a bill become law, it will likely face legal challenges, according to Brian Hildreth, president of the California Political Attorneys Association. California was one of the first states to follow New York in filing legislation.

“Eligibility to run for office is linked to the eligibility for the right of a person to vote,” Hildreth said. “The courts have been very clear that creating barriers to vote like a poll tax, literacy test, or needing to own property is now unconstitutional. I could see that anytime a legislature adds more steps, they will face a problem.”

Yet at the same time, courts have given states broad authority over how to administer their elections, including requiring candidates to issue financial disclosure forms as Massachusetts has done.

Hoylman, of New York, pointed out that really only one state needs to pass the law, not all 26. “Once one state has [the tax returns] and makes them public, then everyone will have them,” he said.

And what if Trump chooses simply not to have his name on the ballot in, say, California since Republicans fare poorly there?

“With his obsession over the popular vote, I don’t think he will concede that many votes,” Hoylman said. “I am very hopeful this will work.”

James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell or subscribe to his Ground Game newsletter: pages.email.bostonglobe.com/