Governor, If You Still Believe in the Tax Returns Requirement, Put It on the Ballot

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

Sometimes, it’s how you do something, not what you do, that gets you in trouble.

That was the case with the legislature and governor’s efforts to force President Trump to release his tax returns. Their “how” was a law that required presidential candidates and other candidates for statewide office to release their tax returns as a condition of getting on the California ballot.

There were many problems with the law—first off, that it violated the state constitution’s requirement that generally recognized candidates be on the ballot. Its timing also seemed aim too much at denying voters the chance to consider Trump, who has broken promises to release his returns, in the 2020 Republican primary. As a tactic, it was foolish—the law was guaranteed not to survive court challenges, dealing a defeat to the righteous efforts by California to fight Trump.

After saying all that, it’s also important to say this: the idea of requiring tax return disclosure is a good one.

But doing it requires an amendment to the state constitution. And that requires a vote of the people.

In fact, it might be great to give voters in California the chance, via a ballot measure or initiative, to set that standard. The campaign would put pressure on Trump, and be a great opportunity for a debate about corruption and disclosure. If voters approved the change, it would have political—and legal—legitimacy.

Governor Newsom defended the law, and said he would still fight for the policy. If you’re serious, governor, why not ask the legislature to put the idea on the ballot?

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