Trump spurs West Springfield man to file tax return disclosure question

BOSTON (SHNS) – Presidential candidates competing in Massachusetts would need to disclose a half decade of tax filings in the next election, under a newly proposed 2018 ballot question.

A West Springfield political consultant filed a citizen initiative with the attorney general’s office that would require presidential candidates to publicly disclose the prior six years of tax returns as a condition of appearing on the ballot.

During the last cycle, President Donald Trump upended the custom of major party candidates releasing tax returns to the news media, keeping his own filings private despite on numerous occasions suggesting he would make them public. If the citizen initiative passes constitutional muster and becomes law, it would be in place in time for the 2020 presidential election.

“Trump is the reason why we started this but this works for all presidential candidates,” said Jim Fleming, a consultant who has worked on Democratic campaigns and ballot questions and came up with the citizen initiative. He said, “He’s never going to do it unless we force him.”

After losing to Trump in November, Democrats around the country have sought to install tax disclosure requirements into their states’ electoral processes.

Sen. Michael Barrett, a Lexington Democrat, filed a similar bill, and both he and Fleming said they are unaware of any state that has adopted a tax disclosure ballot requirement. In January, Barrett’s bill (H 365) was sent to the Committee on Election Laws, which has not held a hearing on it.

In May, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican and Trump supporter, returned to Garden State lawmakers a bill that would require presidential candidates to disclose their tax returns, arguing it is “clearly unconstitutional.”

“This transparent political stunt masquerading as a bill is politics at its worst,” Christie wrote in his message. He said, “Unwilling to cope with the results of last November’s election, the Legislature introduced this unconstitutional bill as a form of therapy to deal with their disbelief at the 2016 election results, and to play politics to their base.”

“Don’t rely on Chris Christie as your constitutional authority,” Barrett said Wednesday. He said he believes a court would determine the proposed tax disclosure requirement is “non-burdensome and in the public interest.”

Both Barrett’s bill and Fleming’s petition would require candidates to submit tax returns to the secretary of state, who would be required to make public the information ahead of the presidential primaries and the general election.

If the language is deemed constitutional by Attorney General Maura Healey’s office, supporters of the petition would need to gather 64,750 certified signatures to put the proposal before the Legislature and then another 10,792 to place it on the 2018 ballot.

Fleming is a paid signature-gatherer himself, but he is hoping to use an all-volunteer force spurred by a website and social media campaign to collect signatures for the citizen initiative.

“This is a different way of doing it,” said Fleming, who said paid signature-gatherers are an “expensive proposition.” Another traditional route for signature gathering is mobilizing volunteers.

Barrett said he hopes the Legislature will pass the requirement into law, and he plans to talk about the proposal when lawmakers from around the country gather in Boston next week for the National Conference of State Legislatures summit.

“It will be interesting to me to see how some of these more politicized issues get dealt with in that kind of forum,” Barrett said.

Massachusetts and its 11 Electoral College votes are considered a safe win for Democrats in presidential contests, though the state can play a role in selecting the nominee.

The Democratic National Committee and the Republican National Committee did not respond to requests for comment on the proposal.

According to Politifact, before the 2016 election, since 1976 every major party presidential candidate except Gerald Ford has released their tax information. Public pressure and precedent had previously been sufficient motivators for those seeking the nation’s highest office to distribute information on their personal finances to the news media.