Two Rochester Republican legislators introduced a proposal Monday to double Minnesota’s cigarette tax to repay money borrowed from public schools and to beat down business property taxes.
The proposed legislation would tack on $1.29 per pack of cigarettes, bringing state’s tobacco tax in line with Wisconsin and other states.
“It’s good health policy, it deters youth smokers and it helps adults to quit,” said Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester. “It’s also good for kids’ education and it makes us a more jobs-friendly state.”
Nelson does not have other Republican sponsors in the Senate, but the bill’s introduction is a noteworthy departure from the GOP’s lockstep refusal to consider tax hikes in the past year, even to end the statewide government shutdown last summer.
The proposal would raise $320 million over two years, which would allow the state to begin repaying more than $2 billion it borrowed from public schools to patch back-to-back budget deficits. Once the school shift is repaid, Nelson proposed using the money to lower business property taxes.
“It’s getting rid of a bad tax for a good tax,” Nelson said.
Nelson said it’s hard to measure support among Republicans, but she believes Democrats will sign on and help build momentum. Rep. Mike Benson, R-Rochester, is the sponsor in the House.
“Just the three letter word, t-a-x, is probably the biggest problem,” Nelson said. “But I trust Minnesotans to see beyond a three letter word.”
Republicans opposed to hiking taxes haven’t been completely allergic to raising money from tobacco.
In 2005, then-Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty backed a 75-cents-per-pack tax hike called a “health impact fee” to break a budget stalemate.
DFL Gov. Mark Dayton has been open to cigarette tax increases in the past.
Nelson touted the measure as a way to deter youth smoking.
Minnesota’s tobacco tax is $1.23 per pack, putting it 27th among all states. Health advocates say raising the tax to $2.52 per pack will prevent 35,000 Minnesota kids from becoming addicted and spur 26,000 adults to quit.
“We have very high business property taxes, we have very moderate tobacco taxes, and in reality I’d like to see that reversed,” Nelson said.