From nuclear disarmament to the Citizens United campaign finance case, Vermonters have a long history of using Town Meeting Day to weigh in on issues of national importance. And next Tuesday will see that tradition continue, when resolutions in several towns will target President Donald Trump, and his elusive federal tax returns.
The resolution focuses on pending legislation in the Vermont Statehouse that would require presidential candidates to disclose their federal tax returns in order to be eligible to appear on the election ballot. The resolution calls on lawmakers to pass it.
Bill Butler, a member of the loose-knit group called Revive Democracy, is helping lead the effort to bring this resolution, and others, to Town Meeting floors across Vermont next Tuesday.
“This is important to us, locally and nationally and internationally,” Butler says. “People are watching. Can a person just be opaque, financially opaque, and be president of the United States? It’s not appropriate.”
Butler is 69 and lives in Jericho, and he helped with the effort in 2012 to bring Town Meeting resolutions that encouraged the repeal of the Citizens United Supreme Court case that effectively deregulated campaign spending. He recalls the moment he decided a nationally focused resolution was needed for this year as well.
“It was when Donald Trump said to the press, ‘Nobody cares about my tax returns but you,’” Butler says. “And I thought, I bet if we ask Jericho, Jericho will say, ‘We care.’ And if we ask Vermont, Vermonters will say, ‘We care.’”
Sen. Jeannette White is the Democratic chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Government Operations, which is taking testimony on the legislation.
“Emotionally I want to do it. I want to stick it to him,” White says, referring to Trump.
White says passage of the bill, however, would almost certainly trigger a federal lawsuit. And she says it’s unclear whether Vermont, or any other state for that matter, has legal standing to issue these kinds of electoral edicts for a presidential candidate.
“And if this just means that we’re going to be dragging on a lawsuit for the next three years, I don’t know if that’s where we’re going to make the biggest impact,” White says.
Assistant Attorney General Eve Jacobs-Carnahan has been helping White’s committee sift through the legal implications.
“It’s not an easy question to answer,” Jacobs-Carnahan says.
Difficult, Jacobs-Carnahan says, because it’s an untested question in the courts. The U.S. Constitution is the guiding authority on presidential elections. But states get to administer them, and can require candidates to have a certain number of petition signatures, for example, or set the date by which they have to file in order to be eligible.
“So the basic question I suspect in the end might come down to whether or not the filing of income tax returns is something that the states can regulate, or if it’s something that can only be set by the U.S. Constitution,” Jacobs-Carnahan says.
Lawyers for the Legislature also say it’s uncertain whether the legislation would pass constitutional muster.
All of which leaves lawmakers in a tough spot: If Vermont passes the law and loses the expected court fight, then taxpayers are on the hook for legal fees on both sides. That cost, Jacobs Carnahan, says could be “significant.”
Legislatures in 16 other states are considering versions of the same legislation.
Paul Burns, the executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, says his organization is still in the process of putting together its own legal opinion. But he believes courts would look favorably upon the law.
Burns says the public has a clear interest in understanding the personal financial entanglements of the leader of the free world. And since everybody files federal tax returns anyway, Burns says the bill wouldn’t pose an undue hurdle to ballot access.
“There should be no difficulty, no logistical challenge of any significant for a candidate to meet this burden,” Burns says.
On Tuesday afternoon, the Senate Committee on Government Operations deferred action on the bill until after their week long Town Meeting Day recess.
Butler is hoping the residents of Vermont send them some encouragement next week, in the form of Town Meeting resolutions.
“People want to make a statement. And all of these statements might sound cacophonous at first. But when you put them together, it’s going to be a symphony. Vermont is going to speak to the issues that matter to them,” Butler says.
Butler says he knows for sure that the resolution will be taken up from the floor in Jericho, Underhill, Williston, Bolton, and Waterbury. And he hopes residents in other towns will also adopt the measure.