DENVER — Colorado voters will decide in November whether to raise the sales tax on recreational marijuana in order to pay for certain after school programs.
Proposition 119 would incrementally raise the recreational marijuana sales tax by 5% by the year 2024 on top of the current 15% sales tax rate it already faces.
What does Prop. 119 do?
Prop. 119 would create the Learning Enrichment and Academic Progress program as well as the Colorado Learning Authority, a board of directors to oversee the program.
Money generated by the sales tax increase would be allocated to students as grant funding to help pay for out-of-school learning opportunities.
Organizations would be eligible to apply for the funding and the money could be used for things like after-school tutoring, second language training, sports, career or technical training, music lessons and mental health services among other things for kids ages 5-17.
Low-income students would be prioritized for the funding in an effort to help close the opportunity gap.
The sales tax increase is projected to bring in roughly $137 million annually to help fund these programs.
Arguments for Prop. 119
Supporters of the ballot question say the COVID pandemic widened the opportunity gap, and this measure will help students catch up.
“One of the things that we’ve always known is that there’s an uneven distribution of opportunity especially for extracurriculars and for out-of-school learning,” said Nicholas Martinez, the co-founder and executive director of Transform Education Now. “Without a tax increase like this, without the support and resources being afforded to families, we will continue to have a world of haves and have nots.”
The money for this program will not go directly to schools, but districts would have an opportunity to apply for some of the grant funding.
Martinez says this grant program will help students catch up without placing the burden entirely on schools or teachers.
“To ask our educators to bear the entire burden of catching kids up and providing all of these opportunities is unreasonable and unfair,” Martinez said.
Instead, tutoring services or other groups that specialize in one particular area would be able to apply for the program and then parents could choose from a list of providers.
Martinez says this model also gives families a chance to decide for themselves how best to tailor the money to their child’s individual needs or interests.
“We believe deeply in the power of putting hands in the dollars of families and letting them determine their own destiny and decide what’s best for their children,” he said.
Low-income families would receive first priority under the initiative for the grant funding. In 2023, students in families with incomes at or below the federal poverty level will be given first access to the funding.
Beginning in 2024, the authority overseeing the program would then determine financial aid amounts and timing, but low-income youth must still be prioritized.
The proposition has bipartisan support from Republican and Democratic lawmakers, including state Senators Rhonda Fields, Bob Gardner, Paul Lundeen, Brittany Pettersen and Kevin Priola, among others.
Numerous other education advocates and children’s advocacy groups have also voices their support for the measure and are urging people to vote yes.
Marijuana industry arguments against Prop. 119
Unsurprisingly, various marijuana organizations have come out against the measure, though their reasons for opposing it vary.
For one thing, marijuana groups argue that a sales tax is a regressive tax that disproportionately affects low-income users.
“Cannabis is taxed at one of the highest rates already and that’s something that industry has been supportive of, but it gets to be a point where there’s just too much and it really hurts the people that Prop 119 is actually claiming to try to help: low-income Coloradans,” said Truman Bradley, the executive director of the Marijuana Industry Group.
He describes the ballot question as a tax on people’s pain since some are either not able to or don’t want to obtain a medical marijuana card.
Some consumers don’t qualify for medical marijuana cards despite needing cannabis for medical purposes, Bradley says, while others are afraid to get one because of what it could mean for their jobs or certain government benefits.
“Attorneys who practice in federal court, I have a colleague who as long as he still wants to practice law, he can’t have an official patient card although he does have health issues and would easily qualify,” said Jeri Shepherd, a cannabis consumer and advocate.
Cannabis groups argue they are already taxed at a high rate, contributing hundreds of millions to the state’s economy, and this ballot question could turn people to the black market for a cheaper product, which can be dangerous.
“Every dollar that you lay on in taxes makes it more attractive for somebody to go back to the illicit market and that’s not what we want,” Bradley said.
Both Bradley and Shepherd say marijuana consumers are willing to have stepped up to help schools through taxes and are still willing to do so, but they don’t support where the money would be going for this program.
Education groups' arguments against Prop. 119
While numerous state lawmakers and education groups support the initiative, others oppose it, saying it does not direct the funding to the right places.
Opponents argue school districts would have no say over what programs would be funded and that the taxpayer money would go to private groups. Some also question what types of private groups would be approved and whether the process could become political.
They contend that the money would be better off going directly to schools so that there is local control and local oversight.
“What is rather deceptive on the ballot is that it would take millions of dollars also away from public school funds,” said Judy Solano, a former state representative, retired teacher and the current chair of Advocates for Public Education Policy.
Along with generating roughly $137 million from the sales tax increase, Prop. 119 would also take $21 million annually from State Land Trust revenue fund to give to the program. That money would normally go to school districts to help with their funding needs.
“We’re just wondering why we would want to take money away from schools when we’re trying to help our schools,” Solano said.
The group also takes issue with the creation of a new learning authority to oversee the grant funding, saying it will waste money and resources to create a new department.
That board of directors would also not face any oversight from the State Board of Education or the Colorado Department of Education despite using taxpayer money to function. Instead, the authority will be overseen by a nine-member board of directors appointed by the governor.
“We see no reason for this money to be directed to a brand new government bureaucracy,” Solano said. “We just think this is unnecessary and it would open it up to private providers getting public education money and it could result in fraud or misuse of our state funds.”
They are also worried about whether this could be a gateway to voucher programs and say the money would be better directed to schools to address the learning loss of their students.
The State Land Trust Board, Colorado PTA, Colorado Association of School Board, Colorado Association of School Executives and American Federation of Teachers all oppose the ballot question as well.
However, the Colorado Education Association has decided to remain neutral on the topic, meaning it doesn’t actively support or oppose the measure.
Staying in the middle
After initially indicating its support for Prop. 119, the CEA shifted into a neutral position due to some concerns with how the program itself will work.
Amie Baca Oehlert, the president of the CEA, says it’s clear that students need more academic opportunities and schools need more funding to make that happen.
“There certainly is a need to provide students with those opportunities and we really want to ensure that inequities are being addressed,” Baca-Oehlert said. “But at the same time, this is a brand new program with a brand new structure and lots of things that are just unknown about what that implementation will actually look like.”
She agrees that schools and teachers have been asked to take on a lot of additional work to address the learning loss from the past year in particular but is unsure if the program will be able to reach the students who need it the most.
So, the CEA is remaining neutral on the issue.
Ultimately, on Nov. 2, it will be up to voters to decide whether Prop. 119 should become law, supporting after-school programs by raising the recreational marijuana sales tax.