(Helen H. Richardson, Denver Post file)

Colorado pot refund proposal: How does a break on sales tax sound?

Colorado voters are expected to face a choice in November 2015: allow the state to keep excess marijuana taxes for school construction or give tax breaks to recreational pot users and growers.

The tentative terms for a referred ballot measure on the issue are outlined in a bill from Sen. Pat Steadman, a Denver Democrat, that won approval Tuesday in the Joint Budget Committee.

State lawmakers must decide what to do with $58 million in recreational marijuana taxes that exceeded the caps under state’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, which imposes a constitutional limit on tax revenues. Colorado must refund the money under a quirk in the law — unless voters allow lawmakers to spend it.

“I tried to construct this in a way that keeps faith with what I think voters intended,” Steadman told his colleagues on the JBC.

Under the law, the tax proceeds from marijuana sales are mostly earmarked for schools and treatment of substance abuse. Steadman’s bill largely holds to that formula if the state is allowed to spend the money. Here’s how it would be divided:

• $40 million for a state grant program for public school construction
• $12 million for a variety of initiatives aimed at youth, marijuana prevention, law enforcement, substance abuse and poison control
• $6 million for the general fund, a discretionary pot of money lawmakers can spend each budget year

If voters reject the measure and demand a refund, then the money will go toward:

• A temporary recreational marijuana sales tax cut, from 10 percent to .01 percent from Jan. 1 to June 30, 2016 ($13.3 million)
• A $19.7 million refund to marijuana grow facilities for excise taxes collected in the 2016 fiscal year
• A $25 million refund to all taxpayers, which likely would amount to a few dollars per taxpayer

If the terms of the ballot measure seem stark, it’s intentional. Republican and Democratic leaders are pushing to keep the money, despite their typically different stances on taxpayer refunds.

“I think what I’ve mapped out here is keeping faith with the voters and presenting a package that I think we can campaign on with confidence,” Steadman said, “and say, if you allow us to not make this TABOR refund and retain these revenues, we are going to apply these dollars to good use.”

This story was first published on The Spot blog