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Sen. Tom Briese

Sen. Tom Briese works at his desk in the Legislature in late March at the Capitol. 

Tom Briese always wanted to play a role in establishing policy, especially tax policy, and determining priorities for the state.

That sense of purpose was there when he was earning a degree in agricultural economics at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and then when he followed that with a UNL law degree.

And now the Albion farmer has a seat at the table; he's positioned as a state senator with a coveted slot on the Legislature's Revenue Committee.

Briese emerged during the 2019 legislative session as a key player in helping form tax policy and in the acquired skill of leveraging legislative power in pursuit of a goal that is paramount for his fellow farmers and rural constituents.

The three key words are a familiar mantra of Nebraska politics: Property tax relief.

"My focus is on tax relief for all Nebraskans," Briese said during an interview at the Capitol an hour before the 2019 Legislature convened for its final day in session last week.

"We have an over-reliance on property taxes, and not just for agriculture, and it gives our state a black eye," he said.  

Briese, whose farm grows corn and soybeans, was elected to the Legislature in 2016. From the very beginning in 2017, he introduced legislation focused on property tax relief; and this year he landed a seat on the Revenue Committee. Just where he wanted to be.

Although he introduced his own property tax reduction package fueled by sales tax increases, he was a loyal team member of the committee as it crafted a consensus package of its own under the leadership of Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn.

When that proposal (LB289) was locked down on the floor of the Legislature after three hours of debate, unable to muster the filibuster-proof support of at least 33 senators, Briese stepped forward with a series of proposed amendments to a separate tax bill of his own that had made it to the second stage of floor consideration.

And then Briese, an affable man with a ready smile who appears to have no real enemies in the Legislature, also demonstrated an iron will.

Approval of a new business tax incentives program (LB720) should be viewed along with his revised bill (LB183) as "a package deal," he told his colleagues.

"No way I'm going to support this without simultaneously reducing property taxes," he said.

After his proposal faltered, the tax incentives bill was trapped two days later.

"They had their chance," Briese said.

And now, he said, he and his colleagues are "open to discussions" about property tax relief and a new business tax incentives program to replace the Nebraska Advantage Act, which expires at the end of 2020.

"There's a way forward," he said.  

"I would envision a package centered around property tax relief that needs to hinge on education funding reform (along with) business incentives," he said, preferably tied to removal of a series of sales tax exemptions and some income tax reform with accompanying tax provisions that "look out for the disadvantaged."

A comprehensive deal.

"That's the way you get there," he said.

A package will "need Omaha and Lincoln support" to clear the 33-vote filibuster barrier, Briese said. 

And a Revenue Committee proposal to include a provision in its tax bill authorizing an additional local school property tax levy to help cover a huge pension shortfall in the Omaha Public Schools already has helped enlist some Omaha support.

"A business incentives component will help bring along urban support," Briese said. Business tax incentives are a huge priority for the Lincoln and Greater Omaha chambers of commerce, as well as the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry. 

This journey will begin inside the Revenue Committee, where virtually all of the key legislative leaders on tax reform, school aid reform and business tax incentives sit. 

And Briese already has informed committee members who huddled after final adjournment of the 2019 legislative session Friday that he views LB289 as the framework. 

While Briese was disappointed that major property tax relief measures foundered this year, he said he's pleased that the Legislature added $51 million a year to the state's property tax credit fund, as recommended by Gov. Pete Ricketts. 

Briese, who was elected in 2016 without opposition, will seek a second term next year. 

His law degree led to a clerkship with a federal judge and two years of practicing law. Now, he's helping write it.

And then it's back to what he says he loves most. 

"I've always wanted to farm when I'm done and I'll be a full-time farmer then," he said.

"When I was 4 years old, I pretended to be a farmer driving toy tractors in the sand pile. That's how I grew up."

But, right now, Briese is where he wants to be.

"It's fascinating, fulfilling, challenging," he said. "Most of us enjoy every minute that we're here.

"It's not easy to get things done in this body, nor should it be.

"But Nebraska farmers and ranchers can't give up," Briese says.

"Young families can't give up. Nor can I give up.

"I look forward to the next battle," he said.

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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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