Presidential candidates seeking to be on the Vermont ballot would have to disclose their personal income tax returns for the past five years under a bill discussed Tuesday by a Senate committee.
However, the bill — which is expected to be discussed at some March town meetings — faced serious constitutional questions from some committee members, as well as by the legal counsel to the Legislature and an assistant attorney general. All worried about restricting access to the ballot in any way.
“I’d love to take a whack at Trump,” said Sen. Chris Pearson, P/D-Chittenden, but he said he was uncomfortable possibly tampering with the “sacred provision” of easy access to the ballot.
Trump did not disclose his income tax returns. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who Pearson supported, released his 2014 but not his 2015 returns.
Two Government Operations Committee members, Sen. Alison Clarkson, D-Windsor, and Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Addison, spoke in support.of the bill, S.77; in addition to Pearson’s concerns, Sen. Brian Collamore, R-Rutland, said the bill was “an overreach” by the state. The chair, Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, is a sponsor. She said her goal was to “start a conversation.” An identical bill, H.243, is moving forward in the House.
Supporters said the requirement would provide transparency into a candidate’s finances and possible conflicts of interest.
After committee discussion, the five members agreed to take the measure up again after Town Meeting Day and see how much interest the idea generated between now and then.
Several states, including California, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Hawaii are considering similar bills. None have passed. Some would restrict access to the general election, while Vermont’s proposal also includes the primary. Others would only require three years of returns while Vermont’s seeks five. The returns would be posted on the Vermont secretary of state’s website.
Legislative counsel BetsyAnn Wrask said the bill raised constitutional questions. Eve Jacobs-Carnahan, an assistant attorney general, said the bill if passed would “very likely” draw a lawsuit challenge. And because of the type of suit it would be, the plaintiff could seek attorney fees from the state.
“It could be a very expensive lawsuit,” she testified.
A bill introduced last year in the U.S. Senate would require a presidential candidate to file returns for the last three years with the Federal Election Commission.
Committee members said citizen groups are pushing to discuss the bill on Town Meeting Day.
The bill is supported by the Vermont Public Interest Research Group.
“There’s nothing radical about disclosing one’s finances and financial interests when seeking high office. Until recently, releasing such information was considered a given. But we’ve learned that we cannot take transparency for granted,” said VPIRG executive director Paul Burns.