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Curt Friesen

In this photo from 2018, Sen. Curt Friesen smiles at his desk in the Legislative Chamber in Lincoln.

And now the heavy lifting and bargaining begins.

Sen. Curt Friesen of Henderson, sponsor of this year's property tax relief plan that is supported by most of the state's major agricultural organizations, says "it's going to be a long haul."

The informal show of agreement during an executive session of the Legislature's Revenue Committee one evening last week was "a 100,000-feet-up discussion of what are the main principles," Friesen said during an interview in the legislative chamber. 

"The devil is in the details." he said. "This is a tough issue; it's complicated. We've been here before."

Friesen has sponsored a bill (LB497) that aims for $520 million in property tax relief by phasing in 50 percent state funding support for local schools over three years, money that would allow districts to lower their property tax rate. 

That proposal will be part of the bargaining, along with major bills sponsored by other members of the committee. 

Meanwhile, as the Legislature begins to seek what always has been an elusive agreement on major tax reform — a bargain that must be strong enough and broad enough to command the 33 votes required to break an expected filibuster — there is the quiet stirring of signature-gathering in western Nebraska.

Largely unheralded and unnoticed, signatures are being affixed now to petitions to place a proposed constitutional amendment on the 2020 general election ballot that would provide a state income tax credit for 35 percent of local property taxes paid.

"That's the backstop," Friesen said. 

Enactment of that constitutional amendment would, in turn, prompt increases in the state sales tax or income tax rate, or probably both, to recover the hundreds of millions of dollars of lost funding that would be needed to continue to support state programs and services. 

"We're getting ready," Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard said.

"They're signing now, and we will be able to collect thousands of signatures when we move into county fairs and other countywide events. It's a pretty easy signature to get."

With rising property tax pressure being applied to homeowners in Omaha and Lincoln, Erdman said, "this has now become an issue that is statewide."

"I'm encouraged by the Revenue Committee's willingness to listen and by Sen. (Lou Ann) Linehan's leadership," he said.

Linehan, an Elkhorn senator, is chairwoman of the committee and she convened the informal sitdown session in the Capitol cafeteria that raised hopes for a framework agreement that might attract some consensus among the four rural and four metropolitan Omaha senators who comprise the committee.

Sen. Tom Briese of Albion has authored a major tax reform plan of his own, and Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte is one of the other committee members who has weighed in with his own legislative proposal.

The committee will sit down again Thursday to continue its effort to try to map a path forward.

The challenge for the Legislature in addressing the property tax issue is that "we've let something get out of hand and we're trying to pull it back," Friesen said. 

And that's complicated by the state's own recent revenue challenges, he said.

Despite that, Friesen said, "I do think it is possible" to construct a plan that could attract the 33 votes that would be needed in the 49-member Legislature to break a filibuster, partly because "pressure from residential homeowners is starting to build now."  

If they are successful, supporters then would need to hold on to at least 30 votes to override an almost-certain veto by Gov. Pete Ricketts, who staunchly opposes any legislation that would increase other taxes to fund property tax relief. 

The governor has proposed $51 million in additional annual funding for the state's property tax credit fund, along with a vote of the people on a constitutional amendment that would establish a 3 percent cap on the growth rate of local property taxes.

"I've told chamber of commerce and ag groups that in the end they've got to get together and reach a compromise," Friesen said. "We've got to have something right now for agriculture.

"People need to understand that what's good for Omaha is good for agriculture, and what's good for agriculture is also good for Omaha," he said.

Friesen said he's ready to talk.

"Maybe I've been too stubborn in the past," he said. "It's more urgent now.

"It's a good committee; I'm pleased with the committee," he added.  

"Everyone sees the need to do something."

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

On Twitter @LJSDon.

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Political reporter

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

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