Editorial: Forcing presidential candidates to release tax returns deserves support

  • President Donald Trump waves while boarding Air Force One at Morristown Municipal Airport in Morristown, N.J. AP PHOTO

Friday, September 15, 2017

The efforts in Massachusetts that would deny ballot access to presidential candidates who do not release their tax returns deserve support.

President Donald Trump’s failure to release his tax returns — either before or after his election in 2016 — leaves unanswered questions about potential conflicts of interest, and ends a four-decades-long practice by presidents of both parties in sharing that information, though they are not required to do so by law.

Massachusetts is one of nearly half the states exploring how they can legally force presidential candidates — including Trump if he seeks re-election in 2020 — to make their tax returns public. Recently, Democratic Attorney General Maura Healey gave the green light to a proposed ballot question that would require presidential and vice presidential candidates who want a place on the primary ballot to disclose their tax returns for the previous six years. Supporters still must gather tens of thousands of signatures to get that question on the 2018 ballot for voters to decide.

Legislators are considering a similar proposal forcing candidates to submit a certified copy of their federal income tax returns for the last three years in exchange for getting their name on the ballot. The documents would be published on the Massachusetts website.

The bill’s chief sponsor is Democratic Sen. Michael Barrett, of Lexington, who said there has been an expectation that presidential candidates would follow “modern practices of disclosure and transparency” even if they are not law. “One of them is the disclosure by candidates of personal financial information related to possible conflicts of interest,” Barrett said. “The 2016 election shattered our confidence in the broad acceptance by presidential candidates of certain rules of public conduct.”

Some legal experts contend that only the U.S. Constitution, rather than states, should define the requirements to become president. Article Two of the Constitution only establishes that a president must be a “natural born citizen” who is at least 35 years old and a resident of the United States for at least 14 years.

Massachusetts Secretary of State William Galvin, a Democrat, responds by saying that states are allowed to set rules for ballot access. For example, candidates for the Massachusetts Legislature and other state offices must file a statement of financial interest that discloses information including sources of income, business and stock interests, mortgages and real estate holdings.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that the states have the right to (establish) conditions for access to the ballot. We do that all the time,” Galvin said last week. “Adding this additional qualification of disclosure is just one more question of access to the ballot.”

Some states have added another provision in an effort to force presidential candidates to disclose their tax returns — ordering electors not to vote for them in the Electoral College if they do not comply.

The New Jersey Legislature, in which Democrats control both branches, was the first to pass such a bill in April. However, it was vetoed by Republican Gov. Chris Christie. Christie wrote in his veto message: “Unwilling to cope with the results of last November’s election, the legislature introduced this unconstitutional bill as a form of therapy to deal with their disbelief at the 2016 election result, and to play politics to their base.”

It is the president and his apologists who are playing politics and disregarding the thousands of Americans who participated in Tax March rallies last April calling on Trump to release his tax returns. At the rally in Washington, D.C., Democratic Congressman Jamie Raskin of Maryland said, “In America, no one is above the law, and all of us are subject to it. If you don’t release your taxes, we have no way of knowing if you are putting America first, or Donald Trump first.”

Americans deserve to know how much the nation’s first billionaire president pays in taxes, whether there are any conflicts of interest in his business dealings and if there is any evidence of financial ties to Russia.

So long as Trump refuses to volunteer that information, Massachusetts and other states must continue their efforts to prevent future presidential candidates from avoiding financial transparency.