Colorado lawmakers’ special session over pot-tax error could grind to a halt

Democrats urge fix to shortfall for RTD, Denver Zoo and other entities, but Republicans want to wait till January

A rare special legislative session that began Monday could end as soon as Tuesday, with Republicans and Democrats at an impasse over a marijuana tax error costing RTD and other entities hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue each month.

A Republican-led Senate committee killed one of two bills brought by Democrats to fix the mistake, signaling what’s likely to be a fruitless attempt by Gov. John Hickenlooper to address the problem.

Republican members of the Senate Transportation Committee — Ray Scott, Randy Baumgardner and John Cooke — voted down the measure on a 3-2 party line vote. Democratic Sens. Nancy Todd and Rachel Zenzinger were in support.

“It’s a waste of taxpayers’ money,” Baumgardner, the committee’s chair, said of the special session and why he voted against it.

The decision came after several hours of testimony from special districts about how they could be affected by the hundreds of thousands of dollars they are missing each month as a result of the bill-drafting error. The Regional Transportation District has been losing out on about $560,000 in revenue each month since the flawed legislation look effect July 1, and the Scientific & Cultural Facilities District — which includes the Denver Zoo — is losing $56,000 monthly.

Neither could cite any immediate impact but suggested the longer the problem goes unfixed, the greater potential effect.

“The correction is needed now,” David Genova, RTD’s general manager, told the Senate Finance Committee, warning that service cuts could result from the issue. “Every bit of revenue is important.”

The Democratic-controlled House gave preliminary approval to a bill mostly on party lines, with a final vote planned for Tuesday. If approved, the measure would then go to the Senate, which is expected to defeat the measure in committee and then adjourn until January.

Senate President Kevin Grantham, R-CaƱon City, said Republican lawmakers are not convinced the problem can’t wait till January and still contend the measure requires voter approval.

“We still have some deep-seated constitutional concerns about this so-called fix that is being pushed by the (governor) and by interests outside the Capitol,” he told reporters. “Those are not concerns we take lightly.”

The controversy is focused on Senate Bill 267, a far-reaching spending measure approved by the legislature before the session adjourned in May.

The bill overhauled a state hospital funding program and rewrote the state’s pot tax law, eliminating a 2.9 percent tax on recreational pot in favor of an increase in the special sales tax on marijuana from 10 to 15 percent. But the rewrite mistakenly blocked the special districts from collecting recreational pot taxes that they had levied before the bill took effect.

Republicans and Democrats agree that that constituted a mistake; the issue is how to fix it.

Democratic leaders point to Colorado Supreme Court decisions to show the question does not need to go to voters for approval and would not run afoul of the state constitution and the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights — as some Republicans suggest.

Hickenlooper on Monday pushed back against Republican suggestions that any legislation to fix the error needs to go to voters for approval, given that special district voters approved taxes on marijuana in prior elections.

“TABOR doesn’t require you to vote on everything twice,” he said.

Hickenlooper stood by his decision to call the special session, even if nothing comes from it.

“We’ve made a lot of progress, in terms of getting us all on the same page and letting the public understand exactly what happened,” he said.

House Speaker Crisanta Duran, a Denver Democrat, called on lawmakers to stop the “grumbling and finger-pointing” and pass a straightforward fix.

The special session costs about $25,400 a day, and it takes a minimum of three days to pass a bill. The majority of the cost is per-diem payments to lawmakers.

“Republicans seem to be bound and determined to make this special session a waste of time,” said state Sen. Daniel Kagan, a Cherry Hills Village Democrat who sponsored the failed legislation before the Senate Finance Committee.

This story was first published on DenverPost.com