Sonoma State University President Judy K. Sakaki told a House Ways and Means subcommittee Tuesday that more needs to be done to provide tax relief for victims of natural disasters such as the wildfires that swept through Northern California in 2017 destroying thousands of homes, including hers.
“In addition to support from FEMA, the tax relief package for fire victims provided another strategy to help victims. But, it was not enough,” Sakaki told members of the House Select Revenue Measures Subcommittee Tuesday. She said she was honored to speak “on behalf of thousands of current and future disaster victims.”
Sakaki, who was invited to testify by Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, chair of the subcommittee, shared her experience of losing her Santa Rosa home and fleeing for her life from the Tubbs fire. She recounted how she and her husband, Patrick McCallum, ran from their burning home shortly after 4 a.m. on Oct. 9 only to discover that their entire Fountaingrove neighborhood was aflame.
“When one of us slowed down to catch our breath or to shield our face from the flying embers, the other pulled,” she said. “We ran for about a mile.” That was when they spotted the headlights of an SUV driven by two off-duty firefighters who took them to safety. That was just the beginning of their journey to put their lives back together. But they know they have fared better than most, she said.
“Many of the 8,400 North Bay wildfire victims will have their temporary housing - or ALE insurance benefits - run out this October,” she said. She noted that if fire victims have not completed their insurance negotiations or finished rebuilding, which relatively few have done, “they will be left with rent payments that they likely cannot afford.”
She encouraged the committee members to help future victims by making some tax relief provisions permanent so they can count on financial support from day one. “Every supportive policy change, especially permanent ones, will make a difference and will be appreciated by future disaster victims,” she said. “I never imagined that I would be a victim of a disaster, and yet here I am.”
Dr. Sakaki was one of five people to testify during the hearing. Other witnesses were Mark Mazur, a director for the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center; Pam Olson, former assistant secretary for tax policy for the Treasury Department and currently a tax official with PricewaterhouseCoopers; Chye-Ching Huang, director of Federal Fiscal Policy for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities; and Kyle Pomerleau, chief economist and vice president of economic analysis at the Tax Foundation.
“For those taxpayers trying to rebuild their lives in the wake of a disaster, temporary policies are just one further layer of uncertainty at a time when their world has been upended,” Rep. Thompson said in his opening remarks. “Particularly for those low-margin taxpayers who do not have an army of expensive lawyers and accountants at hand, certainty is key.”
Thompson said he has long advocated for permanent, national disaster tax policy “so those who find themselves the unfortunate victims of a natural disaster aren’t left waiting to see whether Congress will pass tax relief for them.” He said he appreciated President Sakaki coming and sharing her experiences. “I think it’s important to put a personal touch on this,” he said.