Gov. John Hickenlooper is concerned about a drafting error in a state spending measure passed in the last legislative session that mistakenly outlawed a handful of special taxing districts from collecting sales taxes on retail marijuana. (David Zalubowski, Associated Press file)

Colorado gov on pot-tax error: I might cancel special session if GOP pledges to address glitch in January

In a fiery Friday morning press briefing, an agitated Gov. John Hickenlooper took swipes at GOP leaders, saying Republican lawmakers had turned next week’s special session on marijuana taxes into a “political circus.”

Related: Is costly Colorado cannabis tax error worth special session? Why the GOP says no

At the same time, Hickenlooper appeared to offer an olive branch on two fronts: He said that the entities losing hundreds of thousands of dollars a month because of the tax problem are offering to pay for the special session and opened the door to calling the session off if Republicans would publicly commit to addressing the tax issue by the end of January.

But far from paving the way toward a deal, Hickenlooper’s comments only appeared to ratchet up the political tension between himself and GOP leaders.

In response, Senate President Kevin Grantham, R-Cañon City, fired off a seething message of his own, saying the governor’s “complete mishandling” of the matter didn’t bode well for next week.

“Having interested parties pay the cost of a special session has to be one of the worst ideas I’ve ever heard from this governor, coming in close second to his baffling and botched decision to hold an unnecessary special session without doing the pre-planning and consultations required to improve our chance of success,” Grantham said in a statement.

Hickenlooper earlier this month took the extraordinary step of calling lawmakers back to Denver for their first special session in five years — a move he said was needed to fix a bill-drafting error that has cost special taxing districts such as the Regional Transportation District millions of dollars in marijuana revenue.

But Republicans, who control the state Senate, have balked at the need for a special session, saying there’s no emergency and the error can be fixed when lawmakers return to the Capitol in January.

Despite the GOP opposition, Hickenlooper on Friday doubled down on his call for a special session, announcing that the affected taxing districts have offered to pay for the $25,000-a-day session out of their pot sales taxes once the revenue stream is restored — a move aimed at sidestepping one of the political arguments against it.

Republicans have argued that it’s a waste of taxpayer dollars to convene a special session, and President Kevin Grantham’s political action committee this week sent out a fundraising solicitation blasting the governor for “toying with taxpayer dollars to advance his political agenda.”

Hickenlooper on Friday pushed back forcefully, accusing Republicans of playing political games.

“What do they benefit? (How) does the conservative principles of the Republican Party benefit?” Hickenlooper said. “The only people who really benefit are the marijuana smokers and fundraising support of the Republicans.

“This is turning into a political circus,” he added. “It defies logic from my perspective.”

State finance officials this summer discovered that lawmakers had mistakenly outlawed a handful of special taxing districts from collecting sales taxes on retail marijuana when they passed a broad spending measure that raised the state sales tax on pot.

The drafting error has cost RTD about $560,000 a month in revenue since the bill took effect July 1. The Scientific and Cultural Facilities District — which includes the Denver Zoo, the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, and more than 275 other arts and culture organizations — is losing another $56,000 monthly.

Hickenlooper said the nine affected districts offered “out of the goodness of their heart” to pay for the special session in an effort to restore the taxes, which had previously been approved by voters.

But the offer raises ethical questions. Should anyone — even a government entity — be allowed to pay for the cost of a special session, the bulk of which goes directly to lawmakers in the form of a per diem, in order to get legislation passed on their behalf?

“They’re saying, well, some people have concern with the cost. (So) take it off the top as that first money that needs to be collected,” Hickenlooper said in response to a reporter’s question on the matter.

“That’s not bribing anything. This is to fix a basic mistake that was made.”

Grantham disagreed, saying the plan smacked of pay-to-play politics.

“This idea would set a terrible precedent and has potential to create huge public misperceptions about the fairness and integrity of the process,” Grantham said. “We sometimes hear the criticism that politicians are ‘bought and paid for,’ but what the governor’s proposing here would make that literally true. What’s next? Will he try lining up sponsorships for the regular session as well?”

Hickenlooper also offered Republicans an out.

“If there were a way we could go out and have a public commitment that we could fix this in the first month (of the regular session) by the end of January, we wouldn’t need to call a special session,” Hickenlooper said.

“If (special districts) felt there was a certainty, I think they’d be willing to wait.”

Grantham did not immediately respond to the suggestion.

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