Harmony Johnson of Boulder rocks a marijuana leaf hat during Denver's annual 4/20 festival at Civic Center Park on Sunday, April 19, 2015.

Colorado allowed to spend marijuana tax money, as voters reject refunds

Updated Nov. 4, 2015 at 8:55 a.m.

Colorado voters Tuesday overwhelmingly approved a statewide ballot measure that gives state lawmakers permission, once again, to spend $66.1 million in taxes collected from the sale of recreational marijuana.

The outcome came as no surprise given its bipartisan backing, and election returns as of 9:40 p.m. showed Proposition BB receiving about 69 percent support, well above the majority-vote threshold, according to returns from counties.

The secretary of state website incorrectly reported the first returns — getting the results backward, officials confirmed.

The measure sends the first $40 million to school construction and $12 million designated for youth and substance-abuse programs. The remaining $14.1 million goes to discretionary accounts controlled by lawmakers.

The ballot question was the third time in four years that voters considered how to spend pot taxes, after approving Amendment 64 in 2012 to legalize marijuana and Proposition AA in 2013 to levy sales and excises taxes. In both prior ballot questions, voters sanctioned sending $40 million toward school construction.

“These election results shouldn’t surprise anyone,” said Sen. Pat Steadman, the Denver Democrat who authored the measure. “Voters have twice indicated they wanted marijuana to be taxed, and the vote just reaffirms that for a third time.”

Tuesday’s vote became necessary after fiscal analysts underestimated how much revenue the state would collect without the new tax in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2015.

The projection is required in the tax’s first year by the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, and the mistake mandated a refund unless lawmakers won voter approval to spend it.

If the measure failed, taxpayers would have received a $25 million rebate — ranging from $6 to $16 per person, depending on income level — and another $41 million would return to marijuana growers and recreational users through tax breaks.

The question generated little attention in the off-year election, reflecting the limited controversy on the measure in the General Assembly earlier this year. Only 23 of 100 lawmakers voted against the bill, all Republicans.

“We are just fulfilling the promises that were made when Amendment 64 was passed,” said state Rep. Polly Lawrence, R-Douglas County, in a recent interview.

The “Vote Yes on Prop BB” campaign anticipated raising about $14,000 but didn’t spend any money on advertisements or mass mailers.

The “No on Prop BB/No on Excess Government” committee didn’t collect any money.

But critics — including Americans for Tax Reform, a Washington, D.C.-based group — sought to label the question as a “tax increase,” adding a political tint to the issue.

The Independence Institute, a limited government advocacy organization based in Denver, also raised questions about how the money would be spent, suggesting it could be unsustainable.

“The original proponents of Amendment 64 were very clever … to tie pot taxes to school construction, even though the two have zero to do with each other,” said Mike Krause at the Independence Institute. “It made it an easy choice for a lot of voters.”

However, Krause said the vote “shows a degree of inconsistency on how people feel about TABOR, because most TABOR overrides, at least statewide, don’t do well.”

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

This story was first published on DenverPost.com