Photo: Will Waldron, Albany Times Union
ALBANY — Congressional Democrats may be one step closer to viewing President Donald J. Trump’s state tax returns.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed the “Trust Act” into law on Monday, authorizing state authorities to release the tax documents of certain officials, provided the forms are requested by a congressional committee for a “legitimate legislative purpose.”
The law maintains the tax privacy of New Yorkers, while expanding a law enforcement exception in New York’s tax code to include requests by congressional tax-related committees.
“Tax secrecy is paramount — the exception being for bonafide investigative and law enforcement purposes,” Cuomo said. “This bill gives Congress the ability to fulfill its Constitutional responsibilities, strengthen our democratic system and ensure that no one is above the law.”
The bill, which has been criticized by Republicans for its specificity, directs the commissioner of the state Department of Taxation and Finance to share state income tax returns and reports upon the written request of the chairperson of the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee, the U.S. Senate Finance Committee, or the Joint Committee on Taxation.
The commissioner is required to redact any information that, if disclosed, would violate state or federal law or constitute an unwarranted invasion of privacy.
The bill’s Senate sponsor, Manhattan Democrat Brad Hoylman, said the intent of the bill is to “restore the fundamental democratic principal that no one person — no matter what office they might hold — is above the law.”
As Trump’s home state, New York is in a unique position to release the president’s tax information, Hoylman said.
Trump has resisted the presidential tradition of publicizing his tax returns and U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin defied a congressional request for the documents.
The requirement for a “legitimate legislative purpose,” which the Trump administration defines as information useful for the drafting of legislation, also remains a barrier to the release of the state returns.
By signing the measure, Cuomo, a third-term Democrat, inserts himself into a fierce struggle by House Democrats to compel the cooperation of Trump officials in a range of investigations. Trump officials have repeatedly argued that committee members do not have a “legitimate legislative” basis for making the requests, while Congress insists that its oversight powers are far-reaching.
The Trust Act becomes law one week after the U.S. House of Representatives sued the Treasury Department and the Internal Revenue Service, demanding access to the president’s federal tax returns, escalating legislators’ ongoing fight with the administration over the legitimacy of the request.
Because of the going legal action, which may advance to the U.S. Supreme Court, Rep. Richard E. Neal (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, has signaled he will not immediately pursue Trump’s state returns.
The committee’s investigation is instead focused on “the mandatory presidential audit program at the IRS,” Neal’s spokesman told the Washington Post.
The information in Trump’s state returns is expected to be similar to the figures in his federal returns.
The Trust Act passed the Democratic-controlled Legislature in May, but was not delivered to Cuomo’s office until Monday.
A spokeswoman for his office, Dani Lever, said the delay was due to a need for scrutiny of the bill, noting that the bill was amended in mid-May to narrow its scope to specific office holders.
“Any responsible government would thoroughly review this bill, just as we will with more than 930 bills passed this session, but especially after this process and given how high the stakes are of this particular legislation,” Lever said.
Last week, the president lashed out at Cuomo and Attorney General Letitia James on Twitter, accusing Democrats of engaging in a “political Witch Hunt.”
James’ office is currently suing the Trump Foundation, alleging it was improperly involved in the president’s political campaign and private business affairs.
In addition to impacting U.S. presidents, the exemption enables the release of tax information for New York’s two U.S. Senators, state executives — such as the governor, comptroller and attorney general —and top county officials. It also applies to executive appointees on the federal, state and local level.
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