Marijuana Tax Ballot Question

Local tax and spending issues, as well as city council and mayoral races largely dominate the 2015 November election in Colorado. There is only one statewide question on the ballot, which asks voters whether Colorado can keep marijuana tax money it’s already collected to pay for school construction, law enforcement and other programs. Bente Birkeland has more from the state capitol.

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Senator Pat Steadman
Senator Pat Steadman (D-Denver) speaks at a press event for Proposition BB, which asks voters whether Colorado can keep the marijuana tax money it has already collected. He serves on the Joint Budget Committee and is joined by other budget committee members and Governor John Hickenlooper. Steadman is leading efforts to pass the measure.

If proposition BB sounds familiar, that’s because it is. This will actually be the third time voters have weighed in on taxing marijuana. Voters legalized marijuana three years ago with the caveat that lawmakers would pass a tax to regulate the drug and use some of the money to pay for school construction. Lawmakers did that and then sent the tax increase to voters, where it overwhelmingly passed in 2013.

“They sent a clear message, they felt marijuana should be regulated it should be taxed, Making sure we could accommodate unintended consequences,” said Governor John Hickenlooper.

But voters are required to adopt the tax increase all over again because of what some are calling a constitutional glitch in the Tax Payers Bill of Rights or TABOR amendment…

“If people are asking themselves why they have to be voting on marijuana issues, two years after they voted on marijuana issues, it’s because of TABOR, and TABOR doesn’t respect the will of voters in certain circumstances,” said Representative Jonathon Singer (D- Longmont), the author of the original tax increase.

When voters first passed the marijuana tax TABOR required the state to estimate what the revenue on pot sales would be, and estimate total state revenues for the year. But state revenues exceeded that original estimate, and that triggers a refund under TABOR.

“I think we’ve given voters a really clear choice. We can keep the money they wanted us to tax, and spend it on the things they wanted us to spend on, or we can refund it back to the marijuana growers and the marijuana consumers, “ said Senator Pat Steadman (D- Denver).

Steadman serves on the Joint Budget Committee and has been spearheading what he calls a low-key campaign to pass Proposition BB. He’s been talking to newspaper editorial boards, and said there is no significant opposition to the ballot question.

“I think you can find some people who are opponents, but they have not formed a campaign committee and I have not run into them in any of the work we’ve done to promote the measure.”

If proposition BB doesn’t pass – the state will have to refund $66 million. The bulk of it would go to marijuana growers; there would also be a marijuana tax holiday next year at retail stores. The final portion would go to everyone through their income tax returns with the average taxpayer receiving eight dollars. Governor Hickenlooper said the money should stay in the state’s coffers.

“If we don’t get this passed, we’ll have a very difficult time regulating it all. I think the state could be much worse off, significantly worse off than we are today,” said Hickenlooper.

That’s because the first $40 million in excise taxes collected from marijuana growers is slated to go to a program to help repair and upgrade public school buildings, many of them in rural areas where money is tight. The other sales and excise tax money helps enforce marijuana laws, and various programs aimed at young people such as initiatives on school bulling, mentoring and marijuana education campaigns.

“Making sure that kids don’t get access to marijuana. To make sure our highways are safe, that we don’t have people getting high and driving,” said Hickenlooper.

Lawmakers in both parties supported referring Proposition BB to the ballot. Senator Kent Lambert (R- Colorado Springs) chairs the joint budget committee. He for one doesn’t mind that the so-called glitch in TABOR requires another vote.

“We have some strong laws in our constitution that protect taxpayers. We want to make sure we follow the legal process and the constitution.”
And while the measure seems like a slam-dunk in this off year election, backers – like Senator Pat Steadman don’t want to take it anything for granted.

“I’ve put quite a few miles on the car this year working on proposition BB,” said Steadman. “I’ll go anywhere to help people understand why this proposition needs to pass in November.”

Steadman said lawmakers wrote the question to be as clear and understandable as possible and have broad appeal, but he concedes the ballot measure itself may still be confusing to voters who feel like they’ve got déjà vu all over again.

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