N.J. Lawmakers: Force Presidential Candidates To Release Tax Returns

TRENTON -- A pair of state lawmakers are hoping to send a warning to future presidential candidates who want to follow in Donald Trump's footsteps: Refuse to release your tax returns, and face a penalty in New Jersey.

Two Democratic members of the state Assembly introduced a bill Thursday -- the day before Trump, a Republican, was sworn in as president -- that would prevent presidential and vice presidential candidates from running on New Jersey's ballot unless they submit their tax returns for at least the five most recent taxable years to the State Division of Elections. 

Each candidate would also have to give written consent for the division to publicly disclose the documents.

The bill (A4520) is a reaction to Trump's refusal to release his tax returns during the 2016 campaign. There is no federal law requiring presidential candidates to do so, but the real estate mogul and former Atlantic City casino tycoon was the first White House contender since 1976 who didn't voluntarily release returns. 

Critics say tax returns would show how much Trump is worth, how much he has given to charity, and whether he his business ties present conflicts of interests.

A state lawmaker in New York proposed a similar bill last month.

"Donald Trump has eschewed at least 40 years of tradition by refusing to release his tax returns, raising an untold number of questions and possible ethical dilemmas," Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex), one sponsor of the New Jersey measure, said in a statement. 

"Making the returns public would clear up any questions about whether a candidate is indebted to any foreign states or accepting any emoluments from them," McKeon added. "This is an issue of national security as well as transparency."

The other sponsor, Assemblyman Troy Singleton (D-Burlington) said "voters deserve to be armed with the whole truth before they make such a weighty decision."

"Since the Republican leadership in Congress is unwilling to do anything about it, we will take matters into our own hands in New Jersey," Singleton added.

There is no text of the legislation yet. And a companion bill has not yet been introduced in the state Senate. If passed by both the Assembly and Senate, it would then need to be signed by the governor to become law.

But is the measure even constitutional? Ronald Chen, a professor at the Rutgers-Newark law school, said he's "extremely doubtful that a state could constitutionally add a substantive requirement to running for president."

"Releasing your tax returns is not a constitutional requirement for becoming President or V.P., so I don't think a state can make it one on its own," Chen told NJ Advance Media.

Trump said during the campaign that he could not release his tax returns because he was being audited -- though the Internal Revenue Service said that didn't prohibit him from doing so. Trump said he would release them once the audit was through. 

But in a news conference earlier this month, Trump said he doesn't believe the public cared about his returns.

"As you know, they're under audit," he said. "The only one who cares about my tax returns are reporters."

Kellyanne Conway, the south Jersey native who was Trump's campaign manager and is now a counselor to the president, echoed that statement in an appearance Sunday on ABC's "This Week."

"People didn't care," Conway said. "They voted for him, and let me make this very clear: Most Americans are very focused on what their tax returns will look like while President Trump is in office, not what his look like."

But Conway took to Twitter on Monday to clarify her comments and say that Trump is "under audit and will not release until that is completed."

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