AUGUSTA — Anyone seeking to appear on the Maine ballot as a presidential or vice presidential candidate would have to hand over their three most recent federal income tax returns under a bill being considered by the Legislature.

Rep. Seth Berry says it’s “unfortunate and even unethical” that President Trump has kept his tax returns secret.

“To require this simple step is very likely the best and the only way our generation can protect and guarantee transparency, freedom from conflicts of interest and good government from the most powerful office in the land,” said Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, the measure’s chief sponsor.

The Legislature’s Committee on Veterans and Legal Affairs heard testimony on the proposal this week, but has yet to discuss the bill.

Two years ago, a similar proposal fell short after the committee opposed it. Both the Maine House and Senate voted against it.

With presidential campaigning already underway, the push to force candidates to release their tax returns is growing. Democratic contender Bernie Sanders recently announced he would soon disclose 10 years of returns.

It is an issue that arose when Republican candidate Donald Trump refused to release his tax filings during the 2016 presidential contest, breaking a tradition that stretched back to the Watergate scandal in the 1970s.

As president, Trump has continued to keep his tax forms private, spurring efforts such as Berry’s in state legislatures nationwide. States can set conditions for ballot access, but so far none has imposed the tax return requirement.

Anna Kellar, executive director of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, told the committee that insisting on release of the forms would “guarantee the American people timely access to important information as they consider who will serve in our highest offices.”

The filings reveal “sources and amount of income, amount paid in taxes, charitable contributions and whether taxes were paid to foreign governments,” she said, and “could reveal potential conflicts of interest and serve as an important accountability benchmark.”

The bill calls for Maine’s secretary of state to put the forms online after redacting personal information, such as Social Security numbers and addresses.

EFFORTS IN OTHER STATES

Legislators in both New Jersey and California passed measures in 2017 that would have forced candidates to release their tax forms to get on the ballot.

In New Jersey, former Republican Gov. Chris Christie, a Trump ally, vetoed it.

Christie called it a “transparent political stunt masquerading as a bill” and “politics at its worst.”

In California, a Democratic governor, Jerry Brown, also vetoed the proposal.

“Today we require tax returns, but what would be next? Five years of health records? A certified birth certificate? High school report cards? And will these requirements vary depending on which political party is in power?” he asked in his veto message, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Despite the vetoes in both states, the idea remains on the table. The New Jersey Senate voted for a new version of the proposal in February, and with a Democratic governor in office it might be adopted.

Lawmakers in at least two dozen states have introduced bills to require the release of tax forms and in several of them at least one house of the state’s legislature approved it.

No state, though, has enacted the measure, which is promoted mostly by Democrats.

CONGRESS ALSO HAS MEASURE

Berry told colleagues in Augusta that he considers it “unfortunate and even unethical” that Trump has kept his tax returns secret.

Trump’s decision “reminds us that we cannot simply expect transparency of our elected leaders,” he said. “If we are serious about good government, we need to require it.”

Berry said it is not enough to see only annual statements that outline sources of income because presidents play such a large role on the world stage.

“No other office in the land – in the world – carries this much power, and this much potential for abuse,” he said.

The secretary of state’s elections director, Melissa Packard, told the committee timing might be tricky.

She said her office has concerns some candidates would not file copies of their taxes quickly enough for the tight printing schedule the state has for getting ballots ready so overseas military can receive them.

It would be forced to leave off candidates, Packard said, and could end up on the losing end of a court decision that would necessitate reprinting ballots.

Berry’s bill includes a provision that stipulates the requirement would take effect only after enough states to total 100 electoral votes have enacted laws that at least three years’ worth of taxes must be disclosed for ballot access by presidential and vice presidential contenders.

There are also efforts in Congress to require the Internal Revenue Service to release the returns of presidential and vice presidential candidates. Those efforts seem unlikely to advance given the Republican control of the Senate.

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