WASHINGTON – Congress passed legislation early Saturday to ensure the families of five firefighters killed in Southern California can get more than $1 million in donations despite an IRS snag.
The measure was passed by voice vote in the final hours of the GOP-controlled Congress and now goes to President Bush for his signature.
The legislation would allow the Central County United Way in Hemet to distribute money to the families of the U.S. Forest Service firefighters killed in an arson blaze in October — even though the organization was not supposed to raise it under Internal Revenue Service rules.
The rules prevent tax-exempt charitable organizations from raising money to benefit individuals, so the United Way risked losing its tax exempt status if it gave out the money.
The legislation applies only to money raised to help families of the firefighter victims of the Esperanza Fire. It was moved through the Senate by Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, and through the House by GOP Reps. Mary Bono, Ken Calvert and Jerry Lewis, who represent the area.
The lawmakers introduced the legislation Friday and rushed it through both chambers before Congress adjourned for the year.
"These firefighters are heroes, and their families should not suffer as a result of a bureaucratic pitfall," Feinstein said. "Congress can move fast when it wants, and I'm pleased that this is one of those occasions."
The legislation ensures United Way can give out the donations while remaining tax-exempt. It also specifies that donors can write off the donations and that recipients won't be taxed.
The same exemptions were enacted for families of victims of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, which is partly why United Way officials have said they were confused about the rules after Riverside County asked them to handle the donations.
The five firefighters were overrun by flames Oct. 26 while protecting a home in Twin Pines, about 90 miles east of Los Angeles. The blaze destroyed 34 homes before it was contained, and an auto mechanic later was arrested. He has pleaded not guilty to arson and murder in the case.
"I applaud the House for taking action on this critical initiative and putting into place protections to safeguard the generous contributions made by many compassionate Americans locally and across this country," Bono said.