Proposition 119 would raise recreational marijuana taxes for educational programs

Proposition 119 will ask Colorado’s voters on Nov. 2 whether to raise the state’s recreational marijuana sales tax to bring in about $137 million a year for out-of-school educational programs for children ages 5-17 — with a priority on kids from low-income households.

The measure calls for a 5 percentage point increase by 2024 on the state’s 15% sales tax for recreational marijuana by 2024 (starting with a 3% rate increase in 2022 and 4% in 2023). If passed, about $20 million a year would also go toward the enrichment programs from the Colorado Land Board Trust, according to a Common Sense Institute report, though that number could fluctuate depending on state land revenue.

A new nine-member state agency — separate from the Colorado Department of Education and the State Board of Education — would administer the Learning Enrichment and Academic Progress Program, in which each eligible child would receive at least $1,500 in financial aid beginning in 2023. The money could be used for tutoring, support for children with special needs and learning disabilities, career and technical education training or other types of enrichment programs.

What proponents are saying

Advocates from the Yes on Prop 119 Campaign say the measure would lead to equity in education.

Delanie Holton-Fessler is the co-owner of Denver-based Craftsman & Apprentice, which provides crafts workshops and camps during and after school. She said that even though her organization provides sliding-scale tuition and ReSchool Colorado has helped with scholarships to families, there are still some that struggle to access their programming.

These types of opportunities help children not just academically but with their social and emotional skills and creative development, she added.

The proposition “gives parents control over the opportunities that they seek out for their kids,” Holton-Fessler said. “… We want to level the playing field for kids and give them all access to these kinds of enriching opportunities.”

The measure has support from across the political spectrum and areas of the state, and former Republican Gov. Bill Owens said in a statement that’s because “they understand the futures of so many of our young people — who are our future employees, employers, and community leaders — are on the line.” He also said the measure would help close an opportunity gap that grew wider during the COVID pandemic.

The Colorado Education Association, the state teachers union, initially came out in support of the measure, but is now neutral.

CEA President Amie Baca-Oehlert said while the group’s board understood how chronic underfunding leads to education equity issues making their way onto the ballot, there are questions about how the program would get implemented, how the board dispersing the money would work and how rural communities that don’t have the same opportunities as those in urban areas would be able to get those resources.

“We need to be prioritizing funding our schools adequately, ensuring that our public schools have the resources that they need so that no matter where a child lives, what their zip code is, that they have access to opportunities that will help them thrive and succeed in our public schools,” she said.

What opponents are saying

Three issue committees have registered with the Colorado Secretary of State’s office to oppose the campaign, including the Cannabis Community for Fairness and Safety.

“This initiative imposes a regressive tax on people’s pain, especially veterans, teachers and the elderly who need cannabis for medicine but can’t get a medical card, and while local communities generate this tax, local school boards have no say over the education programs it pays for,” Chuck Smith, CEO of Bellrock Brands, said in a statement.

Smith, who is also the board president for Colorado Leads, a coalition of cannabis business leaders, said the industry is already highly taxed.

“If these ballot measures are so beneficial to all Coloradans, why aren’t other industries asked to pay their fair share of these taxes?” he added.

Judy Solano, a retired teacher and former Democratic state representative, is part of the No on Prop 119 campaign. She calls the measure deceptive and worries about a lack of oversight for the board that’ll distribute funds.

“We believe it’s unnecessary and feel like this is just a diversion of public monies for public education,” Solano said.

Her group opposes money being moved from the Colorado Land Board Trust that Solano said could instead go toward K-12 public schools.

But Solano also worries about the program serving as a “quasi-voucher program.” Although the financial aid goes directly to students and their families and cannot be used for tuition, the money could be used for private programming and even religious institutions if the board considers them eligible providers.

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