RI Senate considers requiring presidential candidates to release tax returns

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Senators on Smith Hill heard testimony Thursday about whether candidates for president and vice president should be required to release their tax returns before getting on the ballot in Rhode Island.

State Sen. Gayle Goldin, D-Providence, is the lead sponsor of a bill that would require candidates for the nation’s top two offices to submit their federal tax returns from the previous five years to the R.I. Board of Elections in order to appear on the ballot. Their returns would then be available for public view online.

“We have certainly seen, particularly this week, what impact it is to not have that transparency in our government,” Goldin told Eyewitness News. She said she introduced the bill after President Trump declined to release his tax returns as a candidate; he still has not done so now that he’s taken office.

“Almost my whole entire life, presidential candidates have been disclosing tax returns,” Goldin said. “I think everybody just assumed that would happen as usual.”

In an interview with The Economist this week, Trump argued that “nobody cares about my tax return except for the reporters,” but said that “at some point I’ll release them.” He added: “Maybe I’ll release them after I’m finished because I’m very proud of them actually. I did a good job.”

Goldin’s bill has the support of good-government group Common Cause Rhode Island.

“This issue has particular relevance to Rhode Islanders because it was reporting by Jack White of The Providence Journal-Bulletin in 1973 that led to the practice of presidential candidates publicly releasing their tax returns,” John Marion, Common Cause’s executive director, said in a statement. (White later spent two decades working at Eyewitness News.)

“Given the president is not subject to many of the conflict of interest laws that other members of the executive branch are, tax returns are an important piece of information for voters to weigh as they assess what potential conflicts a candidate might face once in office,” Marion continued.

The ACLU of Rhode Island has opposed the bill over concerns about its ballot access.

Its executive director, Steven Brown, who testified at Thursday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, pointed to a blog post by the group that argues barring candidates from running for office is not “good government.”

“Because we believe that the burdens on qualifying for the ballot should be as minimal as possible, this requirement sets a troubling precedent and is poor policy,” the ACLU post reads.

Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo said she supports the concept behind the bill, but would need to evaluate whether it passes constitutional muster before supporting the legislation.

“It is totally unacceptable for anyone to run for president of the United States without revealing their tax returns,” Raimondo said Thursday. “It’s a good idea, and if it’s constitutional I would support it.”

Brandon Bell, chairman of the Rhode Island Republican Party, said he opposes the bill and believes it would be unconstitutional.

“Whether or not it is deemed to be constitutional, what does this bill proposed by state house democrats do to improve our status as number 50 out of 50 states for business friendly climate? What does this do to improve our economy? NOTHING,” Bell wrote in an email.

In her testimony Thursday, Sen. Goldin acknowledged that keeping a candidate off the ballot in the smallest state may not have the largest effect on the election result. But, she said, the purpose of the bill is to get the tax returns released.

“If we’re the only state that does it, every other state benefits because the tax returns would then be public,” Goldin said.

The bill would require candidates to submit the tax returns no later than 50 days before the general election, with their written consent to release the returns publicly. The Board of Elections would have the ability to redact the returns, if necessary, before posting online.

The Senate Judiciary committee held the bill for further study after the hearing.