Sonoma State University president asks Congress to provide natural disaster tax relief

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Sonoma State University President Judy Sakaki sat before a congressional panel in Washington on Tuesday afternoon, recounting the harrowing events of Oct. 9, 2017 — how she ran barefoot from flames in the middle of the street in her Santa Rosa neighborhood during the Tubbs wildfire, holding husband Patrick’s hand, unable to see or breathe.

“When one of us slowed down to catch our breath or to shield our face from the flying embers, the other pulled,” she told members of the House Subcommittee on Select Revenue Measures.

Sakaki’s testimony was part of a committee hearing on temporary tax policies and their broad effects on individual taxpayers, small businesses and large corporations, as well as survivors of natural disasters. Some 80 such temporary tax provisions are expected to expire between now and 2027.

Sakaki, who lost her home in Fountaingrove during the 2017 fire, said she and her husband are “more fortunate than most.” But she told the panel that about 70 percent of North Bay fire survivors’ homes were underinsured and she expressed support for tax relief for victims of natural disasters.

She also called attention to many fire survivors whose insurance funds for temporary housing will be running out by October.

“Every supportive policy change, especially permanent ones, will make a difference and will be appreciated by future disaster victims,” Sakaki said. “I never imagined that I would be a victim of a disaster and yet here I am.”

Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, chairman of the House subcommittee, said temporary policies sometimes are used as targeted tax relief on charity payments for things such as mass shootings or disasters that occurred in past years. Temporary policies also can be used to encourage new energy production, conservation and pollution reduction, he said.

Thompson, reached by phone after the hearing, said President Trump’s “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act” legislation eliminated or severely curtailed the personal casualty tax deduction for losses from wildfires and other natural disasters. Disaster victims shouldn’t have to “run back to Congress” every time there’s an emergency, he said.

“My big concern is that once you’re the victim of a natural disaster, you shouldn’t have to figure out if there are going to be tax polices that address your case,” he said. “You should have the ability to write off your losses. That was taken away. I think that’s wrong.”

During her testimony, Sakaki recalled vividly her experience fleeing with her husband from the Tubbs fire.

“We ran for about a mile,” she said. “And just when we thought that we might not make it, miraculously, in the middle of the thick black smoke, we see two little circles in the distance. It was a vehicle, thank goodness. In it were two off-duty firefighters who decided to make a last run up the hill in our neighborhood. They found us and saved our lives.”

Sakaki said disasters are unpredictable events that inflict unimaginable loss and test survivors in unprecedented ways. Communities, even the most resilient ones, need assistance beyond Federal Emergency Management Agency support and wildfire tax relief, she said.

Several tax policy experts testified alongside Sakaki during the hearing Tuesday afternoon. Many of them spoke about the need for stable tax policies and a review of the efficacy of temporary policies. At times, subcommittee members on either side of the aisle sparred over their opposition or support of President Trump’s tax cuts.

GOP Rep. Darin Lahood of Illinois applauded the “unprecedented” economic impact of the tax cuts, with African-Americans and Hispanics experiencing extremely low unemployment, millions of Americans being moved off of “food stamps;” and more people optimistic about the future than last year.

“By every indication, we are back on track,” Lahood said.

Lahood’s enthusiasm for Trump’s tax policies were tempered by Democratic members who pointed out that those who benefited the most from the 2017 tax cuts were the wealthiest Americans and large corporations who rewarded themselves with stock buybacks and bonuses rather than significant investments in industries.

Sakaki’s testimony contrasted sharply with that policy-heavy analysis of the other experts invited to speak before the subcommittee. She said natural disasters do not discriminate and “show no regard for anyone,” whether it’s victims of a flood, hurricane or wildfire.

“But our country, and you as a member of Congress, can show your regard for everyone,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @pressreno.

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