Steve Nelson is a key player in the emerging drama over property tax reduction and reform and he is increasingly optimistic that the Legislature will set the state on course next year toward a multi-year solution that will benefit Nebraska agriculture along with urban homeowners.

Nelson is president of the 61,000-member Nebraska Farm Bureau Federation, a driving force in the concerted effort to reduce reliance on local property taxes, which bear the brunt of supporting local schools and significantly impact agriculture at a time of distress in the farm economy.

"I think we are at a place today where we are really close to finding some middle ground that makes meaningful changes to our tax system," Nelson said during a 90-minute interview at the Farm Bureau headquarters in south Lincoln.

"The current tax system is unsustainable," Nelson said. "That also means the way we fund schools is unsustainable. Those are two very bad things.

"Not all problems will be solved at once," he said. "But I am optimistic that we can take some significant steps now and set things in motion" during the 2018 legislative session that convenes in January.

"If that doesn't happen," Nelson said, "we will address that when the time comes."

The alternative that has been raised by advocates of property tax reduction — and preferred by some — is an initiative petition drive to place the issue on the 2018 general election ballot, either in the form of a constitutional amendment or legislation.

While taking the issue directly to the voters is an option, Nelson said, "First and foremost, we are seeking a legislative solution. That's our No. 1 priority. 

"A legislative solution would likely require some sort of phase-in over some period of time and there's nothing wrong with that goal."

As the next legislative session looms four months away, Nelson said, "We will continue to work with Gov. Ricketts and his team to bring increased fairness and equity" to Nebraska's tax system.

The Farm Bureau, which speaks in terms of family memberships, is all about "working together," Nelson noted.

Rural supporters of property tax reduction feel some urgency in attempting to address that issue now, recognizing that the clock is running, and not in their favor, in terms of their relative legislative strength as the nation approaches the 2020 federal census.  

Legislative redistricting triggered by the new census figures in Nebraska is likely to reduce the number of rural districts in the Legislature, perhaps slicing rural representation by a couple of senators. 

Nelson, who has been Farm Bureau president since he was elected in 2011, is a son of rural Nebraska, with a rich family heritage in agriculture.

He hails from a Kearney County farm near Axtell. He attended high school in Hildreth and went to a country church in Axtell. But the closest community was Keene, home to a large grain elevator and about 10 people.

"My main goal always was to farm," Nelson said.  "For me, it was an opportunity to do something you like to do."

Lots of good things about it: independence, you're your own boss, you learn how to "make things" and improvise, you learn as you work, you have an opportunity to work outside.

You get to grow, too.

Nelson's son now manages the farm; he's the sixth generation to farm that land.   

Corn, soybeans, hybrid seed corn; once there were pigs, but no livestock anymore.

Low commodity prices have made it a tough go for Nebraska farmers now.

So, will it get better?

"Sure," Nelson said. "Just don't ask me when.

"Every operation is different. The ability to withstand tough times has quite a range.

"But if ag prices drop farther, I think we cross a line."

While the Legislature continues to confront the question of property tax relief, Congress has begun to discuss the next federal farm bill.

"That's more important when times are tough," Nelson said, "and crop insurance is the No. 1 thing."

Trade is hugely important for Nebraska agriculture, Nelson said. "Twenty-five to 30 percent of everything we produce is exported," he said.

Nelson praised Gov. Pete Ricketts for his efforts to expand ag trade and his recent trip to Canada, where he highlighted the importance of protecting the North American Free Trade Agreement as the United States, Canada and Mexico begin a round of negotiations over "modernization" of the compact.

While centered on his work at the Farm Bureau, Nelson maintains deep ties to family and farm, two hours away from Lincoln.  

"I try to be home as much as I can," he said. 

The Farm Bureau counts its membership numbers in terms of families.

And Nelson keeps his own family photos close; they adorn his sunlit office.

There are grandchildren now, perhaps another farm generation.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7248 or dwalton@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSDon.

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Don Walton, a Husker and Yankee fan, is a longtime Journal Star political and government reporter.

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