Denver Ballot Question Would Raise Marijuana Taxes for Out-of-School Learning

An initiative proposing that Denver increase recreational marijuana sales taxes to fund out-of-school learning scholarships will appear on the November ballot, according to the Denver Elections Division.

The group behind My Spark Denver submitted enough approved signatures to get the proposal on the city’s November 8 ballot. The initiative proposes raising Denver recreational marijuana sales taxes by 4.5 percent in order to subsidize $1,000 scholarships that would be distributed to Denver families for learning enrichment programs.

According to proponents of My Spark Denver, the tax hike would collect $22.5 million annually that would serve an estimated 20,000 kids ages five to eighteen. Under the proposal, 0.3 percent of Denver’s current marijuana tax revenue, or around $1.5 million per year, would also go to My Spark Denver.

Colorado voters rejected a proposal similar to My Spark Denver last November. Proposition 119 had asked for a 5 percent increase in marijuana sales taxes statewide to help fund a new out-of-school education program. Although that measure lost by an 8.5 percent margin across the state, it was more successful in Denver, where nearly 49 percent of voters approved the measure.

Both Prop 119 and the My Spark Denver campaign are funded by Gary Community Ventures, which spent over $1 million to push Prop 119 and is responsible for all $270,000 of My Spark Denver’s contributions so far, according to the Denver Clerk’s Office.

Gary Community Ventures would not comment on My Spark Denver, but the initiative does have public support from groups such as the YMCA of Metro Denver, Healthier Colorado, Servicios de la Raza, Cleo Parker Robinson Dance, Northeast Denver Islamic Center, Tepeyac Community Health Center , Colorado Black Roundtable and Movimiento Poder; State Representative Serena Gonzales-Gutierres, whose district is in Denver, is also a proponent.

University of Denver scholar-in-residence Mike Cortés has been advocating for education equity since he was a professor at DU. Now a My Spark Denver steering committee member, Cortés says the COVID-19 pandemic “magnified” learning inequities between low-income and middle- and high-income families, with many of the low-income families coming from communities of color.

“The main thing that has had me concerned is that for many years, education outcomes for Latinos in public schools have not been what they should be. We find in Denver, in particular, that Latino children are more likely to attend relatively resourced schools and are less likely to have good education outcomes,” he says, adding that the quality of at-home learning during pandemic school closures was largely based on parental resources.

“Too many low-income families don’t have enough bandwidth at home, if any, to effectively connect with all of their children’s teachers,” he says. “In a way, a bad situation has become worse now.”

The $1,000 scholarships could be used for out-of-school programs that provide tutoring and “supplemental academic instruction” in educational areas, as well as sports activities, career training or mental health. Funds could also be used for educational materials and transportation required to participate in such programs.

Prop 119 faced criticism from within the educational community for several reasons, including the fact that it did not allot any funds for public-school programs and also blocked free educational service providers. The structure of its oversight board came under fire, too. The My Spark Denver set-up would be similar, with the program run by a nine-member board of directors. The Denver mayor would appoint seven of those members; one would be a Denver City Council member and the ninth the superintendent of Denver Public Schools or an appointee chosen by the DPS superintendent.

The My Spark Denver board would screen and approve educational providers for the program, with public schools and public-school teachers pre-authorized as providers, according to the proposal. Children would have to live in Denver and be eligible for public-school admission in order to qualify for funds, but the My Spark Denver language does not specify whether a child would actually have to be enrolled in a public school.

DPS declined to comment on the ballot initiative. The Colorado Education Association, a Colorado teachers union based in Denver with nearly 40,000 members, did not respond to requests for comment.

Voters in Denver rejected two separate marijuana tax increase proposals in the 2021 election. The city’s overall sales tax on recreational pot, which includes a handful of state and local rates, is currently 26.41 percent. It would eclipse 30 percent if My Spark Denver passes, putting Denver on top of the rest of Colorado for marijuana sales tax rates.

Several members of Denver’s marijuana industry, in the midst of a year-long decline in both product prices and sales revenue, oppose My Spark Denver. According to Marijuana Industry Group executive director Truman Bradley, a higher tax rate could make a bad situation worse for dispensaries, some of which have already closed because of poor sales.

“There are over 40,000 badged employees and almost 2,000 owners working and doing business in Colorado cannabis. As the Denver portion of these employees and businesses, we view this tax increase as a threat to our livelihoods,” Bradley wrote in a public letter to Denver City Council. “Marijuana businesses in Colorado, as with many other businesses, are suffering significantly due to generationally-high inflation being experienced nationwide. The marijuana industry has experienced over 12 straight months of sales declines.”

Federal prohibition of marijuana prevents marijuana businesses from getting tax exemptions, forcing dispensaries to pay overall tax rates of over 70 percent, according to Bradley, who adds that marijuana revenue has become an overused resource for state- or voter-backed projects.

Cortés believes that paying an extra 4.5 percent at dispensaries is worth the toll, however.

“All things considered with the social justice aspect of this, when you think about the impact of inadequate education for children, that outweighs asking people who buy marijuana to pay a little bit more at the store,” he argues.

Here’s the My Spark Denver initiative language, as well as the petition details:

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