Master Gardner Matthew Lopez trims off small limbs from a mother plant as he clones a strain of cannabis called Qush at Northern Lights grow facility. (Seth McConnell, The Denver Post)

On the 2015 ballot: marijuana, again

Coloradans made it clear when they approved recreational marijuana sales that they’re OK with taxing pot and using the money for schools.

Except now the state might have to give that revenue back to taxpayers, unless a new plan in the works by one of the legislature’s top budget brains prevails.

Sen. Pat Steadman, a Denver Democrat and member of the legislature’s Joint Budget Committee, is working on a bill to put yet another pot measure on the ballot, asking voters in November for permission to spend marijuana taxes on schools and other state expenses.

He finds the question redundant but says it’s the only way to fix a trigger invoked by the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, a 1992 constitutional amendment that mandates refunds to taxpayers when revenue exceeds expectations. If voters don’t allow the state to keep the extra funds, Colorado must offer rebates.

Current projections show Colorado will collect about $30.5 million in excess taxes on medical and recreational marijuana this year. Those pot dollars are on top of bigger-than-expected tax revenues for the state, big enough they triggered the rules of TABOR.

“I think the voters have been very clear,” said Steadman, who thinks pot tax money should go toward state expenses including programs to keep marijuana away from kids.

The ballot measure would be a one-time fix, clearing up language so the bill of rights would not kick in again regarding future pot revenues.

The bill appears an easy sell, considering the ranking Republican lawmaker on the budget committee approves at least the idea of it.

“There is logic that this really was the intent of the voters,” said Sen. Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs. “My guess is we are going to support that.”

A third ballot measure on marijuana is “inconvenient” but would have minimal cost and is needed to protect Colorado from lawsuits if the state kept money it was required by the constitution to rebate. “We don’t want to violate the letter of the law,” Lambert said.

The problem exists because prior ballot questions did not take TABOR into account, something Lambert said he wishes had been caught by legislative council staffers. Activist groups wrote the ballot measures.

The law does not specify that businesses that paid the taxes — in this case marijuana shop owners — would receive the rebate. It only says taxpayers in general.

State sales tax on medical marijuana is 2.9 percent. In addition, recreational pot has a 15 percent excise tax and a 10 percent state sales tax. Current estimates show the state bringing in a combined $30.5 million on recreational and medicinal marijuana this year.

There were rumblings among lawmakers during the summer about lowering the recreational tax rate out of concern that it was driving customers to the black market. But a special legislative committee formed to study pot taxes did not make that recommendation.

The committee only suggested clarifying language that counties and cities are authorized to collect their own sales taxes on recreational pot stores, as well as authorizing cities to tax the sale of unprocessed marijuana from grow operations.

Lambert said it’s too early to say whether the tax rates are too high or not high enough. “We don’t have enough data,” he said.

Jennifer Brown: 303-954-1593, or

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