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Lawmakers advance bill to give tax relief to wildfire victims

Ruins from a wildfire.
Brian Bull
An Oct. 28, 2020 photo shows the devastation the community of Blue River suffered after the Holiday Farm Fire swept through the previous month.

Oregon lawmakers are advancing a bill that would offer a tax break to wildfire victims.

Senate Bill 1520 would exempt from state income taxes any money received as a result of a wildfire-related lawsuit.

Hundreds of people have either won lawsuits or reached settlements against electric utilities in the wake of the 2020 wildfires, which burned thousands of homes across Oregon.

Supporters of the bill said that after paying attorney fees and taxes, some plaintiffs don’t have enough money left over to actually rebuild their house.

During a brief discussion on the Senate floor Wednesday, Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, urged his colleagues to act quickly.

"I think it is an emergency," he said. "These families have already been harmed. This gives us the opportunity to give them a little bit of relief.”

One lawmaker whose district was hit hard by the Almeda Fire said he heard "hair-raising" testimony in committee from wildfire victims who found that money won via the legal system didn't end up going very far.

"The list of expenses they had were really quite remarkable out of their settlements, including ... a large share to state government," said Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland.

If signed into law, the bill would be retroactive to 2020, meaning wildfire victims who had already paid state taxes on their settlements could apply for a refund.

SB 1520 passed the Senate unanimously and now heads to the Oregon House.

Chris Lehman has been reporting on Oregon issues since 2006. He joined the KLCC news department in December 2018 and became News Director in March 2023. Chris was born and raised in Pennsylvania, and graduated from Temple University with a degree in journalism. His public broadcasting career includes stops in Louisiana and Illinois. Chris has filed for national programs including “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered.”