TRENTON, N.J. – New Jersey Democrats are reviving a controversial effort to force President Donald Trump to release his tax returns or be denied a spot on the state’s 2020 ballot.
The state Senate on Thursday approved a bill — which the Legislature passed once before, in 2017, but which then-Gov. Chris Christie blocked by issuing a scathing veto — that would prohibit candidates for president and vice president from appearing on the ballot unless they make their tax returns public.
Similar legislation has been introduced in at least 30 states but never enacted, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, meaning New Jersey would be the first to impose such a disclosure requirement if its measure is also approved by the Assembly and signed by Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat.
A spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-Middlesex, said the speaker would consult with his caucus about holding votes on the bill. Murphy’s office declined to comment when asked about the governor’s position on the measure.
New Jersey’s bill and the others like it, introduced in most cases by Democratic lawmakers angered by Trump’s refusal to disclose information about his personal finances, have touched off a heated national debate over the constitutionality and appropriateness of such a law.
Supporters say states have room under the U.S. Constitution to create ballot access requirements and argue that voters should be able to review candidates’ tax returns in deciding whom to send to the White House.
“It is so obvious with this president that had voters known some of what seem to be his business interests, he may not have been elected president,” said state Sen. Loretta Weinberg, a sponsor of the bill.
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But critics say such a measure would be struck down by the courts and could lead to more demands on candidates in the future.
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“Today we require tax returns, but what would be next?” former Gov. Jerry Brown of California, a Democrat, wrote in vetoing a similar measure in his state in 2017, according to The Associated Press. “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?”
“It’s just political pandering,” said John Carbone, an attorney specializing in election law at the Ridgewood, N.J., firm Carbone & Faasse.
“They can impose no requirements for a candidate for federal office, let alone president,” Carbone added, referring to state lawmakers. “They’re thinking like Alabama Democrats during the Civil War: What can we do to get Lincoln?”
Trump’s tax returns have been a target of his opponents since the 2016 campaign. Trump, a Republican, broke with decades of precedent in refusing to release his taxes and has cited a “continuous” IRS audit when challenged on his insistence on withholding them.
Although they are not required to do so by law, presidential candidates in the past have released their tax returns as a matter of transparency so voters could learn about their financial status, business dealings and potential conflicts of interest.
Democrats who now control the U.S. House of Representatives are reportedly studying a century-old provision in the federal tax code to gain access to Trump’s tax returns and make them public. Separately, state Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. has introduced legislation to require presidents and presidential candidates to release their 10 most recent federal income tax returns.
The Democrats who control New Jersey’s Legislature are eyeing a different mechanism to force the disclosure, threatening to keep off the New Jersey ballot any candidate who does not share his or her five most recent tax returns at least 50 days before the 2020 general election.
The bill, S-119, would also prohibit New Jersey electors from voting for a non-compliant presidential or vice presidential candidate as part of the Electoral College process after a general election.
Whether that would hurt Trump is another story: New Jersey has not voted for a Republican presidential candidate since 1988.
The bill must still be approved by an Assembly committee and the full chamber before it can head to the governor’s desk for final approval or a veto.
In his veto message in 2017, Christie, a Republican, blasted an earlier version of the bill as a “transparent political stunt” and said if lawmakers were really concerned about transparency, they would end the disclosure exemption for legislative records under the state’s Open Public Records Act. Democrats did not take Christie up on his suggestion.
In a similar spirit, state Sen. Joe Pennacchio sought to amend the latest bill during Thursday’s Senate voting session to make it apply to all gubernatorial, state Senate and Assembly candidates as well as presidential and vice presidential candidates.
“What’s good for the goose is what’s good for the gander,” Pennacchio said in a statement explaining the move. “If this really is about making sure voters are well-informed, then common sense dictates that S-119 should apply to all of us.”
Democrats blocked the amendments.
Follow Nick Pugliese on Twitter: @nickpugz