Opinion

To stay on the ballot, Trump should disclose his tax returns

By Brad Hoylman |  

April 17, 2017 |  

(Evan El-Amin/Shutterstock)

On April 15, more than 120 million Americans took part in an annual ritual of national annoyance: filing taxes with the Internal Revenue Service.

For most of us, Tax Day (which technically falls on April 18 this year) is merely an obligatory event to be tolerated. For the nation’s taxpayer-in-chief, however, April 15 was particularly fraught. In a national demonstration stretching from Mar-a-Lago to Manhattan and beyond, thousands of Americans across 134 cities took to the streets to demand the release of Donald Trump’s tax returns.

Here in New York, we got the ball rolling with the Tax Returns Uniformly Made Public (T.R.U.M.P.) Act, which I introduced in the state Senate back in December.

Under the provision of the T.R.U.M.P. Act, candidates for president or vice president would be required to file at least five years of federal income tax returns with the state Board of Elections at least 50 days prior to the general election. The elections board would then have ten days to make the tax returns publicly available. Failure to comply would disqualify a candidate from appearing on the state’s general election ballot. 

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This legislation enshrines in law what was until recently a widely accepted political norm. Going back to Jimmy Carter, presidential candidates voluntarily released their returns. But if we’ve learned anything from the last election, it’s that the current president thinks the rules don’t apply to him. Unfortunately, the Republicans who control Congress seem to agree.

State legislatures are stepping into this vacuum of responsibility. Since I announced the T.R.U.M.P. Act in December, legislators from more than half of all statehouses across the country have introduced tax disclosure legislation similar to mine. In all, this broadening coalition represents more than 140 million voters and 325 electoral votes – well past the number needed to win the presidency.

These states reflect national sentiment. A national poll released two weeks ago showed 61 percent of voters want Trump to release his tax returns. The same percentage supported a law requiring a candidate to release five years of returns to appear on the ballot.

A national poll released two weeks ago showed 61 percent of voters want Trump to release his tax returns. The same percentage supported a law requiring a candidate to release five years of returns to appear on the ballot.

Why do Americans care about a presidential candidate’s taxes? Tax information offers voters a snapshot of a candidate’s financial standing. It reveals the tax rate a candidate pays; how much they’ve donated to charity; whether their tax policies might help their own bottom line; and – perhaps most relevant to current controversies – to whom a candidate might be financially beholden. 

This information is especially important since presidents, unlike members of Congress or other federal officials, are exempt from most federal conflicts-of-interest laws. 

Providing tax returns is commonplace among most people. How many times have Americans had to provide years of returns to a bank loan or a mortgage for a house? Shouldn’t voters be afforded the same respect?

According to Donald Trump, apparently not. 

Trump has said he can’t release his returns because of an ongoing audit, even though the IRS itself says that’s no barrier to disclosure. Plus, the audit excuse doesn’t explain why he can’t release returns from previous years. Trump’s obstinacy on tax disclosure leads to the question: what’s he hiding?

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The smoke around this issue continues to be fanned by reports of potential financial conflicts of interest by Trump and his family. Just this week we learned that the president arbitrarily adjusted his trust with the Trump Organization. Under the new arrangement, the President will be allowed to “draw money from his more than 400 businesses, at any time, without disclosing it.”

Far more serious, though, are Trump’s ties to Russia and the suggestion that his associates may have colluded with Moscow to interfere with the 2016 election. Congress and the FBI have launched enquiries, but these have been hobbled by partisan division, leaking and intrigue, and threaten to undermine their credibility. Calls continue for a special prosecutor but the outcome is anything but certain.

Rather than wait for these investigations to play out, the people demand action now. It’s time for state representatives to heed to call of their voters and pass tax disclosure legislation for presidential candidates. It’s more than dollars and cents. Tax Day 2017 was a clarion call to safeguard the presidency from conflicts of interest.

Brad Hoylman is a New York state senator representing the 27th Senate District in Manhattan.

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