Property tax relief likely to drive agenda for 2018 session

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The stakes are high this year as Nebraska lawmakers return to Lincoln.
An issue talked about for years is dialed up front and center and will likely be a dominating factor in the 60-day session that starts Wednesday, Jan. 3. Adjusting the state’s tax structure in a way that will lighten the load on Nebraska’s largest industry has been a priority issue for several years now, though finding a palatable way to shift that load has been a challenge.
Dist. 34 Sen. Curt Friesen pulled no punches in a recent speech previewing this year’s session. The Henderson area farmer ran for office touting the need for property tax relief and after three years in office he’s “tired of the game.” Friesen has been at the table leading this discussion for the past two years and says he’s ready to do what’s necessary to move the needle in 2018.
Though up for election this year, Friesen also says his votes and words won’t be intended to win another four-year term. If Dist. 34 voters agree with his positions, particularly on the property tax issue, they will give him a thumbs up. If not, they won’t. That’s refreshing, frankly, to hear an elected official stand up for what he believes in and let the chips fall where they may.
Friesen’s view, one shared by many, is that an overreliance on ag producers to carry the tax load is a billion dollar problem. He and several of his colleagues have been reviewing strategies to adjust tax policy this year, knowing full well that a billion dollar shift will cause all kinds of ripples and pushback.
One of the battles looming is getting down to specific details on how to shift the load away from property taxes to create more balance with sales and income taxes. There are many, many products and services which are now exempt from sales tax, for example. Figuring out where to redraw the sales tax line and understanding who will pay more or less will be critical.
We heard hints of a ballot initiative last year as one approach to force the legislature’s hand on this issue, though at this point it’s too soon to know if that will be necessary. It won’t be if lawmakers take some action. A lot of that depends on Gov. Pete Ricketts and how he proposes to address the property tax debate. Those details will start to surface this week, setting the stage for a lively conversation. What we do know is that ag land values dipped last year and could do so again, adding fuel to the fire for change.
Our hope as the session begins is that there isn’t as much talk or focus on the urban/rural divide. It shouldn’t matter if lawmakers are from Omaha, Ogallala, Lincoln or Chadron. Our state, one state, driven by a struggling ag economy, has a problem that can no longer be denied or ignored.
Kurt Johnson

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