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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Washington could demand tax returns from presidential candidates

President Donald Trump looks at his notes before speaking during an event on human trafficking in the Cabinet Room of the White House, on Friday, Feb. 1, 2019, in Washington. (Evan Vucci / AP)

OLYMPIA – People running for president would have to release five years worth of tax returns in order to be on the ballot in Washington under a bill that supporters say would boost transparency and opponents say is probably unconstitutional.

Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue, said then-candidate Donald Trump’s refusal in 2016 to release returns “up-ended 40 years of tradition” of presidential candidates releasing their tax information.

Trump said he was precluded from releasing his returns because he was being audited, although critics pointed out there was no legal prohibition for that.

In 2020 and beyond, the bill would require a presidential candidate to release the most recent five years of tax returns at least 63 days before the state’s presidential primary; party or independent nominees for president and vice president would release them at least 63 days before the general election. Otherwise, the secretary of state couldn’t allow their names to be printed on the ballot.

Representatives of citizen activist groups like Majority Rules, Fix Democracy First and North Seattle Progressives said they support the change.

Susan Edwards, of Renton, told the Senate State Government, Tribal Relations and Elections Committee she filed an initiative to the Legislature in 2017 to require presidential candidates to release their tax forms. Although popular with voters she approached, Edwards said she didn’t have the organization or the financial backing to get all the signatures needed.

The state elections office has some concerns about the proposal, said Jay Jennings, legislative director for the secretary of state. Courts have ruled against states that try to add qualifications to people running for federal office beyond what’s in the U.S. Constitution, he said.

Ryan Ottele, of Renton, said he supports the concept but suspects that if the law passes and the state disqualifies a candidate, “there’s going to be lawsuits, and media circus galore.” Other states are working on similar legislation so maybe Washington should let them handle it.

Tim Eyman, who regularly sponsors and raises money for anti-tax initiatives, called it “ridiculously unconstitutional” because the courts have struck down other add-on provisions like term limits and supermajority requirements to raise taxes. Eyman said he’s not a lawyer, but has represented himself in some court proceedings, and declared the proposal “really dumb.”

Supporters shouldn’t worry because Donald Trump isn’t going to win Washington anyway, he said.

Kuderer, who is a lawyer, replied: “I agree with you on one thing. You’re not an attorney. Whether or not it’s constitutional remains to be seen.”

On another issue involving upcoming presidential elections, the committee also will consider a bill to change penalties for Washington members of the Electoral College who vote for someone other than the presidential candidate who wins the most votes in the state.

In 2016, four of Washington’s 12 electors voted for someone other than Democrat Hillary Clinton, and were fined $1,000 under the state’s “faithless elector” statute for not keeping the pledge they signed to do so. Three of them have appealed that fine in a case currently before the state Supreme Court, claiming they can’t be fined for changing their minds and voting their conscience.

The bill, also sponsored by Kuderer, would remove the fine but require any elector who doesn’t honor their pledge to be automatically replaced by an alternate who will cast an electoral vote for the candidate who received the most votes.

“They dishonor the will of the people,” Kuderer said of faithless electors. “If you’re not going to live up to your word, we’re going to replace you with someone who will.”

The committee will decide in the coming weeks whether to send the bills to the full Senate.