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Exclusive: California Gov. Newsom to Sign Bill Targeting Trump Tax Returns
California Gov. Gavin Newsom, my former boss, tells me that he has decided to sign a bill that would require all presidential and gubernatorial candidates to submit five years of tax returns in order to qualify for the primary ballot in California.
The bill, known as SB-27, passed the California Assembly and Senate earlier this month. The law would require candidates for U.S. president and California governor to submit their five most recent years of tax returns, with sensitive information like Social Security numbers redacted. The state would then publish those returns for the public to review. If a candidate for either of those offices refused to submit their returns, they would not be listed on the primary ballot.
This is unquestionably a bill directed toward and inspired by President Donald Trump’s refusal to release copies of his tax returns. When Newsom signs the bill today, California will become the first state to require such a disclosure by law.
All of the major Democratic presidential candidates have released years’ worth of tax returns, and when Newsom ran for governor in 2018, he allowed reporters to review six years of his tax returns.
The conventional wisdom for some time had been that Newsom would sign the bill, but in the past couple of weeks, he struck a very cautious tone in conversations with me and in an interview with Politico.
It’s fair to say that Trump will not comply with the disclosure requirement and will, as a result, not be on California’s 2020 primary ballot. While that won’t impact his ability to be on the general election ballot—unless he faces a serious challenge in the primary, Trump is the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party—Trump is likely to take this as a major slight.
Last week, Trump, through his personal lawyers, filed a lawsuit in federal court to challenge a law passed by the New York legislature and signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo that would require New York tax authorities to turn over Trump’s state tax returns if requested by three congressional committees.
In 2017, Newsom’s predecessor, Gov. Jerry Brown, vetoed a similar bill that would have required presidential candidates to submit five years of tax returns in order to qualify for the California primary ballot. That bill, however, did not require the same disclosure requirements for gubernatorial candidates as the bill that Newsom plans on signing does.
Brown, who didn’t release his tax returns when he ran for governor in 2010 or reelection in 2014, said in his veto message at the time that he was worried that the bill would lead to a slippery slope of disclosure, saying, in part, “Today we require tax returns, but what would be next? Five years of health records? A certified birth certificate? High school report cards? And will these requirements vary depending on which political party is in power?”
Brown also said he wasn’t sure that the measure was constitutional, something that Newsom echoed in an interview with Politico at the National Governors Association conference several days ago, saying it was “an open-ended question.”
Newsom will not only face criticism from Trump and the president’s allies; Democratic moderates have expressed cynicism and concern with this bill, seeing it as a distraction from Trump’s policies.
This is a narrative that Newsom is quite familiar with.
Newsom has a history of ripping off the Band-Aid when it comes to controversial or divisive issues. In 2004, he ordered the clerk of the city and county of San Francisco to start issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The move ignited a political firestorm, and he faced criticism from Democratic leaders like California Sen. Dianne Feinstein. The California Supreme Court halted the marriages 30 days after they started and voided the marriage licenses months later.
Critics said Newsom was showboating and causing electoral problems for Democrats in a presidential election year, and some prominent Democrats refused to be photographed with him, but Newsom unquestionably ignited a whole new movement to fight for same-sex marriage. It’s unclear if the courts will uphold the California tax return disclosure law, or if it will even be challenged in the courts, but like the same-sex marriage license order in 2004, Newsom hopes to get people to see what might be possible—in this case, that the leader of the free world be required to show what’s under the hood.