Two Rochester Republican legislators introduced a proposal on Monday to more than double Minnesota's cigarette tax to repay public schools and reduce business property taxes.

The legislation would tack on $1.29 per pack of cigarettes, bringing Minnesota'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 has no 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.

Republican legislative leaders were not rushing to support the measure.

"She brought it last year, we talked about it last year and it didn't get a lot of support," said Sen. Julianne Ortman, chairwoman of the Senate Taxes Committee.

The proposal would raise about $320 million over two years. That 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 schools are repaid, Nelson proposed using the money to lower business property taxes.

Nelson said she believes Democrats will sign on, building bipartisan 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 increasing taxes haven't been completely allergic to raising money from tobacco. In 2005, then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty backed a 75 cents-per-pack 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.

Minnesota's tobacco tax is $1.23 per pack, putting it 27th among the states.

Health advocates say raising the tax to $2.52 per pack would 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.

Baird Helgeson • 651-222-1288