A line stretches outside BotanaCare 21+ in Northglenn on Jan 1, 2014, the first day of adult-use marijuana sales in Colorado. (Denver Post file)

Colorado pot tax back in spotlight for 2015 statewide vote

The only statewide ballot question in the 2015 election offers a clear choice on how to handle $66.1 million in marijuana taxes collected in the first year of legal pot.

Should lawmakers have permission to spend the money on school construction and other programs? Or should the state refund the money, giving most of it back to recreational pot growers and users?

The measure’s author hopes it’s an easy choice. Earlier this month, state Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, launched a low-profile campaign to gather support ahead of the November vote on Proposition BB.

Steadman designed the language to push voters in a particular direction, working from the foundation that voters twice approved measures in recent years to tax recreational marijuana, starting with the 2012 initiative to legalize pot.

“I sort of wrote it assuming there wouldn’t be much of a campaign, so it needed to sell itself with surface appeal and have popular elements in it, like the school construction money,” Steadman said in an interview.

The “Vote Yes on Prop BB” campaign acknowledges that the marijuana question is complicated by its intersection with the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, one of the state’s most polarizing topics. If the measure fails, 62 percent of the refund will go to pot users and growers and the rest to Colorado taxpayers, ranging from $6 to $16 based on income levels.

TABOR requires the state to tell voters how much revenue the new tax will collect and how much total revenue the state will receive in the first year. If actual collections miss either target, a refund is necessary, unless voters say the state can keep it.

The misstep triggers two TABOR mandates: a refund of all the pot tax money collected and the elimination of that tax.

In addition to asking voters to forgo a refund and allow the state to spend it, lawmakers approved legislation to eliminate the marijuana state sales tax for one day to meet the TABOR rule. The state sales tax holiday on recreational marijuana is scheduled for Wednesday, but the 15 percent excise and 10 percent sales tax resumes Thursday.

So far, the ballot measure is facing no organized opposition.

Steadman, who is working with political firm RBI Strategies and Research on the campaign, said he doesn’t expect to raise more than $10,000 to promote it. The legislation passed with bipartisan support — only 23 lawmakers, all Republicans, opposed it.

“I think the reason you saw so much consensus … is because our voters have been very clear with us,” he said, citing the 65 percent vote for taxation of marijuana in 2013.

The Cannabis Chamber of Commerce supported the legislation, but it does not plan on putting money toward the Proposition BB campaign.

“I don’t know if really anyone needs to put up any money,” said Tyler Henson, the chamber’s president. “I think people are going to read it and see the value of where the money is going to go, and I don’t think we are going to see too many people oppose it.”

Colorado collected $66.1 million in marijuana taxes in the first year of recreational sales. Seen here, a line stretches outside  BotanaCare 21+ in Northglenn on Jan 1, 2014. (Denver Post file)
Colorado collected $66.1 million in marijuana taxes in the first year of recreational sales. Seen here, a line stretches outside BotanaCare 21+ in Northglenn on Jan 1, 2014. (Denver Post file)

The most vocal opposition is Douglas Bruce, the author of TABOR. The disgraced former state lawmaker — who is once again facing the prospect of jail time — suggests that the $66.1 million request to spend money represents “a tax increase” and the ballot question is plagued with issues that make it unconstitutional. He is threatening to file a lawsuit to challenge the measure, though he acknowledged he likely won’t win.

In a recent legislative hearing where he aired his objections, Bruce took particular aim at how the measure says the money will be spent if it passes. “I think it’s wrong for you to provide a teaser or an inducement for people to vote yes, when you are trying to supposedly be objective and factual,” he said, complaining that some of the programs that stand to benefit “have nothing to do with marijuana.”

House GOP leader Brian DelGrosso also noted that the legislature is not required to spend the money as the ballot measure suggests and asked whether it is “kind of a shell game” to increase state spending.

In rebuttal, Steadman said he sees a “nexus” between the programs — some of which are favorites for certain lawmakers — because they help youth “stay in school and away from drugs.”

He said the measure spends money how people intended when they approved the taxes the first time.

John Frank: 303-954-2409, jfrank@denverpost.com or twitter.com/ByJohnFrank

Follow the money

In November, voters will decide whether to let the state keep and spend $66.1 million in marijuana taxes, or request a refund under the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.

If the measure passes, the state is supposed to spend the money on the following:

$40 million for school construction

$14.1 million to discretionary accounts controlled by lawmakers

An additional $12 million is earmarked for state programs:

$2.5 million for marijuana education and prevention campaigns

$2 million for bullying prevention school grants

$2 million for dropout prevention school grants

$2 million for youth mentoring services

$1 million for a one-time grant to poison control centers

$1 million for local government marijuana impact grants

$500,000 for substance-abuse screening and intervention programs

$500,000 for substance-abuse treatment

$300,000 for Future Farmers of America and 4-H programs at the State Fair

$200,000 for roadside impaired-driving enforcement training for law enforcement

If the measure fails, the refund will go to the following:

$25 million to Colorado taxpayers, ranging from $6-$16 each based on income level

$24 million to recreational marijuana growers

$17 million to recreational marijuana users through a temporary sales tax break from 10 percent to 0.1 percent starting in January

Source: Colorado Legislative Council

This story was first published on DenverPost.com