Secretary of State Wayne Williams says his office can comply with proposed legislation to require that presidential candidates release their tax returns in order to appear on Colorado’s ballot, but he doesn’t think the bill is needed.

House Bill 1328 would require presidential and vice presidential candidates to release their federal income tax returns for the previous five years to the Colorado secretary of state, who would then post them to the web. If both members of a presidential ticket don’t comply, according to the legislation, neither name will appear on Colorado’s general election ballot. The state’s nine electors would also be forbidden from voting for candidates who don’t meet the requirement.

“Right now in Colorado the people can decide if someone’s giving enough information or not,” Williams, a Republican, told The Colorado Statesman. “Letting the people make that decision seems to make sense to me.”

The bill’s Democratic sponsors say they were inspired by President Donald Trump’s break with tradition last year when he declined to release his tax returns during the presidential campaign, but they argue that establishing the requirement for access to the state’s ballot isn’t aimed just at Trump.

“We feel strongly we needed a way to have more transparency for Colorado voters,” state Rep. Chris Hansen, D-Denver, one of the bill’s prime sponsors, told The Statesman. “We have more than four decades of bipartisan consensus that the American people should understand the dealings and possible conflicts of interest before choosing a president.”

“It’s been one of the unwritten rules of American politics,” he said. “Now it’s time to write it down.”

The bill’s other prime sponsors are state Rep. Edie Hooton, D-Boulder, and state Sens. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, and Matt Jones, D-Longmont.

Similar bills have been introduced in Democratic-controlled chambers in about half the states, although legal experts disagree whether such a requirement for ballot access can survive court challenges.

Williams pointed out that he already receives tax returns from some elected officials — it’s an option to file tax returns instead of filling out required financial disclosure forms — and believes his office could sort out how to handle fulfilling the bill’s requirements. (As it stands, tax returns submitted by Colorado officials aren’t posted online, but redacted copies are available for viewing at the secretary of state’s office.)

“We’ve got the process in place,” Williams said. “It would have to be adapted. If the bill requires more than the main page, you’ve got some potential identity theft issues and, if (a candidate is) an attorney, you’ve got some attorney-client privilege issues — you’re ethically forbidden from disclosing your clients, so those would have to be redacted if they appear on tax forms.”

Williams said he hopes the legislation will give some discretion to the secretary of state’s office to adopt rules and address what he speculated could be numerous concerns, also including whether candidates would be required to release corporate returns if that’s how their finances are structured.

“Those are important things that would have to be done,” he said, noting that the bill’s sponsors didn’t get in touch with his office before introducing the proposal.

Colorado listed 22 presidential tickets — including major party nominees, along with third-party and unaffiliated candidates — on the state’s 2016 ballot. While Democratic and Republican presidential candidates have made a tradition of releasing some income tax returns for the past 40 years, third-party candidates and others have rarely faced that kind of scrutiny.

“The people can decide if candidates have been forthcoming enough,” Williams reiterated. “They have the choice not to vote for them. So they’re in control.”

The bill is set for its initial hearing on Monday before the House Finance Committee.

— ernest@coloradostatesman.com

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