Colorado voters go to the polls on Tuesday to decide two ballot measures tied to education funding, one taxing recreational marijuana and the other to hike state income taxes to raise nearly $1 billion annually for public schools.
Under the marijuana tax proposal, a combined 15 percent excise and 10 percent sales tax would be imposed on recreational cannabis sales, with the first $40 million raised to fund school construction projects.
Along with Washington state, Colorado voters last year legalized the possession and use of small amounts of marijuana by adults for non-medical purposes. Washington's initiative had a funding scheme built into the ballot measure, but Colorado's constitution requires a statewide vote to approve tax increases.
Voters in Denver, meanwhile, will be asked to impose an additional 3.5 percent city sales tax on pot shops.
While proponents of last year's marijuana legalization ballot measure included the tax component in the law, there is opposition from some within the pot legalization community to the tax.
Rachel Gillette, president of Colorado's chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said the organization is not opposed to taxing cannabis sales, but the state legislature slipped in the sales tax provision to the referendum.
"This is not keeping with the promise to tax marijuana like alcohol," she said. "It's more like regulating the sale of plutonium than alcohol. It looks like a law-enforcement money grab."
GATES, BLOOMBERG PITCH IN
Separately, a proposed amendment to the state constitution would overhaul the state's income tax structure, and require 43 percent of the state budget be funneled to K-12 education.
The school funding constitutional amendment would scrap the state's current 4.63 percent flat income tax rate tied to federal adjusted gross income tax, and replace it with a two-tiered income tax hike.
Under the proposal, taxpayers who make less than $75,000 would pay a 5 percent rate and taxpayers who make over $75,000 would pay a 5.9 percent rate.
Proponents of the tax measure say Colorado has for years underfunded public education, and seek voter approval to put school funding on a surer financial footing.
But opponents argue that Colorado requires local school districts to allocate tax revenues, so there is no guarantee on how the money will be spent at the local level, which could be used on teacher salaries or to backfill the state's underfunded public employees retirement fund.
Backers of the tax have raised over $10 million for the campaign, bombarding television and radio airwaves with ads, touting the need for the money to fund full-day kindergarten, and to restore music, art and physical education programs.
Among the donors to the pro-tax measure are Microsoft founder Bill Gates and his wife Melinda and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who combined donated $2 million to the campaign.
Opponents were quick to seize on the contribution from Bloomberg, who poured $350,000 into a campaign that unsuccessfully tried to stave off the recall of two state senators over their support for new gun-control laws.
"Billionaire New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg should have realized by now that he can't buy Colorado politics, but apparently he can still rope his friends in to try to flood the landscape with out-of-state money," said Kelly Maher, executive director of Compass Colorado, which opposes the referendum.
Independent Denver political pollster and analyst Floyd Ciruli said the fact that supporters of the school tax hike needed an infusion of cash late in the campaign indicates that the measure is in danger of failing.
"Why would you need $2 million when you've already spent $8 million?" he asked.
Ciruli said the marijuana tax will likely pass, since opponents of the tax would likely be younger voters who don't go to the polls in large numbers, especially in a non-presidential election year.
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