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Law Gives Access To Trump’s State Tax Return

ALBANY — President Donald Trump’s New York state tax returns could be given to Congress under a new law in his home state.

The measure was signed into law Monday by Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

It directs state tax officials to share state returns of certain elected and appointed officials upon request from the chairpersons of one of three top congressional committees.

The new law could give Congress a way around the president’s refusal to release his returns, though it’s expected to face legal challenges.

Cuomo says the change ensures no one is above the law and noted the law was carefully tailored to protect the tax privacy of everyday New Yorkers.

It’s unclear when or even whether state tax officials can expect a request for the tax returns.

On the state Assembly floor, Assemblyman Andrew Goodell, R-Jamestown, led questioning of the bill’s sponsor in the Assembly, Assemblyman David Buchwald, D-Mt. Kisco.

Goodell asked Buchwald if New Yorkers’ tax returns were generally shared with the federal IRS and with tax departments in other states to make sure that tax information is consistent across all jurisdictions, though that information is generally not made public.

Buchwald replied to Goodell’s question by saying information about property taxes paid by each taxpayer is available to the public, as is whether or not a taxpayer was late paying their taxes. That happens because there is no constitutional reason that tax information is private. The privacy is provided by statute.

“It’s only provided by statute and we’re, of course, here today to amend one of those statutes,” Buchwald said.

Goodell replied by asking if the bill dealt with property taxes or income taxes and whether or not income taxes are typically available to the public to view.

Typically, a court order or judicial subpoena is needed to view income tax documents. Buchwald said the Congressional committee chairs should have had a right under the Internal Revenue Code to the income tax returns of every American, but that access had been denied by President Trump.

“Do any of those members have a legal right to access New York state tax returns, absent the consent of the taxpayer?” Goodell asked.

Buchwald said Congress can access the federal tax returns state residents and entities but cannot directly access New York tax returns unless the state changed its statutes.

Goodell also questioned what happens to someone who violated the previous state statute and released someone’s state income tax returns. The law stated it is a misdemeanor crime to make an unauthorized disclosure of income tax returns and the person’s automatic firing, followed by a five-year ban on employment.

“I mean, we have very serious provisions that are designed to protect the confidentiality of all New Yorkers’ tax returns from being publicly disclosed, correct?” Goodell asked.

Buchwald countered by answering that the bill amends current law to reduce the scope of whose tax returns are available to Congress, limiting it to elected officials, top appointees and the entities of which they are significant shareholders rather than allowing all New Yorkers’ tax information to be available, though Goodell argued that those confidentiality provisions had actually been around for decades and were not a recent phenomenon.

The Jamestown Republican also asked if the chairperson of one of the state Legislature’s committees would be able to request the income tax filing of any random New York resident, something Buchwald said would not happen under law.

“Is there any other provision that would enable us, in the legislative capacity, to access an individual New Yorker’s tax return?” Goodell asked.

“Not — nothing with regards to a request for the tax information from the Taxation — The Department of Taxation and Finance, no,” Buchwald responded.

There was a lengthy discussion between Goodell and Buchwald over the definition of the phrase legislative interest that would allow Congress to request state tax information of an elected official. Goodell wondered if aggregate information on groups of taxpayers would serve a legislative purpose more so than the tax information of one state resident.

“Obviously, as the gentleman knows, with the amendments to the bill it is a narrower scope of New Yorkers that we’re considering,” Buchwald said. “But just to be clear, there is, of course, information to be gleaned from broad statistics, but sometimes, as we all know as legislators, individual circumstances make a compelling case. That’s part of why we often, as legislators, will name a bill in honor of someone or recognize that particular story is compelling in terms of making the legislative case for a bill. So, I’m not going to prejudge the congressional committees if it turns out that they view a particular circumstance as being interesting, then that might be a reason why broad statistical information is not sufficient.”

Goodell, who voted no along with Assemblyman Joe Giglio, R-Gowanda, gave several reasons for voting against the legislation in his comments on the bill. Goodell had serious privacy concerns about such information being made public, citing how much information an individual’s tax return could give about their spouse, their business, what they own, their banking information, and, depending on the return, what they pay employees and what they charge customers. He took particular umbrage with the lack of notification required to taxpayers if their information is requested by Congress.

“No notice,” Goodell said. “No opportunity for them to be heard. No opportunity to evaluate whether someone’s going on a politically-motivated fishing expedition or a completely improper personal review for whatever reason. And that’s right. There are New Yorkers who are the subject of sometimes a great deal of national interest that aren’t necessarily the president. Might be a corporate officer. Might be a celebrity. Might be someone else who does not want their confidential information disclosed, who should not have that confidential information disclosed, and for whom the only reason their information is being requested is because of some non-legislative personal interest. And this bill says even though you’re a New Yorker, even though you’re an average person or a celebrity, we don’t care. If we get a request, we’re sending your confidential information out. Good luck with that. No notice to you. You can read about it when it hits the papers. Our job is to protect New Yorkers.”

Goodell also argued that there should be some way for New York’s decision makers to ensure that there is a legitimate legislative purpose to disclose the information before simply sending it off to Washington, D.C.

“And here’s the irony: this bill says we’ll send out New Yorkers’ tax information to congressional members even though none of us in this room, exercising a legislative purpose, none of us who actually vote on the tax law like we are today, none of us have access to it. So my question to all of us is why are we giving access to congressional members from around the nation about new Yorkers’ tax returns when they have absolutely no ability to legislate on new York tax law when we ourselves recognize that that’s an improper disclosure of confidential information for ourselves? Let’s cut to the chase. This bill is not designed to advance New Yorkers’ interests. It’s designed solely for political headlines on a national stage that does not help or protect New Yorkers, and for that reason I will not be supporting it.”

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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