No one would mistake California Assemblyman Mike Briggs for Arnold Schwarzenegger. However, the former Clovis (Calif.) High School Future Farmers of America member with a masters degree in classical guitar is a giant to farmers right now compared to “The Terminator.”
Freshman assemblyman Briggs bullied an agriculture tax relief package through his chamber that in its first year alone will bring at least $63 million in tax relief to farmers.
He and a dogged team of lobbyists from the Nisei Farmers League and Far West Equipment Dealers Association and several key commodity groups (cotton, citrus, rice) lassoed three other rural Republican assemblymen (Richard Dickerson of Redding, Dave Kelley of Palm Desert and Anthony Pescetti of Lodi) to bolt their party and create a majority to pass a state budget that included Briggs' agricultural tax relief passage.
Briggs has been made a political outcast because he crossed a political line in the sand and voted for a budget that contained a statewide sales tax increase.
Briggs said the state sales tax increase was inevitable, regardless of the ag package. It was mandated under a law passed during the Wilson administration that triggers an increase when state funds fall below certain levels, and the state's energy crisis has done that.
Briggs, who was elected to his first political office in 1994 as a Fresno, Calif., councilman, may be out of a job come next election, but he makes no apology for what he did. He says multi-generation family farms are disappearing from California because of the high cost of farming and agriculture deserves the same kind of political help other industries receive. Briggs' district includes Fresno and Tulare counties, the first and third richest agricultural counties in the nation with combined farm income of more than $6 billion.
Cornerstone of the tax relief package was the sales tax exemption on tractors. Spearheaded by the dealers association, the original package would only exempt the sales tax on tractors and other new equipment. The tenacious Briggs managed to get used equipment, parts, leasing and rental of farm equipment relieved of sales tax in the final package.
This gives farmers equal tax footing with their peers in 38 other states who do not pay sales tax on equipment. It also could bolster farm equipment sales into the hundreds of million of dollars because many producers now purchase equipment and parts from outside of California to avoid paying sales tax.
The package passed by the Assembly also included a one-year exemption on sales tax on diesel fuel for agriculture; a permanent elimination of sales tax on propane; $5 million for a “Buy California” consumer education package and a rural crime enforcement program.
Earl Williams, president of the California Cotton Ginner and Grower Associations, joined others to lavish praise on Briggs at a hastily called press conference for his “courage” in getting the relief package passed that would save farmers hundred of millions of dollars in taxes.
Williams said Briggs' political prowess has brought a ray of sunshine to a dismal agriculture landscape, and it will benefit farmers forever.
“Mike Briggs has taken a lot of unwarranted and undeserved criticism. He stood up and was willing to help agriculture. He did not give in,” said Williams.
California agriculture does not have much voting power. Several of the more powerful ag groups often go hat-in-hand with the word compromise on the tip of their tongues into the Sacramento political arena. Briggs was backed by several agricultural groups, however, that don't even care how compromise is spelled. And it marks a new era of a coalition of commodity groups no longer willing to roll over and beg.