'Glitch' Could Send Colorado's Marijuana Revenue to Taxpayers Instead of State

by | June 5, 2015

By Megan Schrader

Colorado voters will be asked in November whether the state can retain an estimated $58 million in recreational marijuana taxes that have been collected this fiscal year.

Gov. John Hickenlooper signed a bill Thursday morning that puts the question on the ballot.

Voters authorized a 10 percent sales tax and 15 percent excise tax on recreational marijuana in 2013.

But a never-before-triggered rule under the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights means the state will have to refund all of the money generated by those taxes in the 2014-15 fiscal year that ends June 30.

"There was a glitch," Hickenlooper said. "We have to go back to the voters and ask them if we can keep the money that they already asked us to collect."

The state has allocated about $30 million on marijuana- related programs during the next fiscal year, and unless this bill passes, that money will come from the general fund rather than pot taxes. If the ballot question fails, the money will be returned to taxpayers through a sales tax holiday for marijuana purchases, an excise tax refund directly to marijuana cultivators, and about $25 million total in refunds to every taxpayer in the state.

House Bill 1367 does much more than just ask voters to keep the money, though.

First, it spends the money.

If the state gets to keep the $58 million, $40 million will go to fund a grant program for school construction projects known as BEST (Building Excellent Schools Today).

Voters have twice seen that $40 million figure promised for school construction, once in Amendment 64, the 2012 ballot imitative that legalized recreational marijuana, and once in Proposition AA, which taxed marijuana in 2013.

Sen. Pat Steadman, a Denver Democrat who sponsored the bill, said that despite seeing that promised investment twice, only about $25 million has been invested in BEST. "This November, when they vote yes, there will be $40 million going to capital construction in public schools," he said.

That will bring the total investment in the program since retail sales began in January 2014 to $65 million.

Other expenditures include:

- $2.5 million for marijuana public education campaigns;

- $1 million for poison control centers;

- $2 million for school bullying prevention;

- $2 million for a grant program to help schools re-enroll dropouts;

- $1 million for youth mentoring services;

- $1 million for a youth marijuana prevention grant program;

- $200,000 to train officers to recognize drug impaired driving;

- $1 million for a grant program for governments impacted by retail marijuana that haven't authorized the sale;

- $500,000 for treatment and detoxification programs;

- $300,000 will go to help fund 4-H programs at the state fair and Future Farmers of America.

Steadman and Hickenlooper both said they anticipate Colorado voters will let the state keep the money.

"The message from the voters is clear: If it's going to be legal it ought to be taxed," Steadman said.

Regardless of whether the question passes, the state will be repaid slowly through future pot tax collections for the $30 million it budgeted in the 2015-16 fiscal year for marijuana related programs.

If the state can't keep the money, it will be repaid to taxpayers through a complicated formula.

Marijuana cultivators will receive an estimated $19.7 million through excise tax repayments. A tax-free holiday beginning January 2016 will run until $13.3 million in sales taxes have been avoided by those buying marijuana. And finally, those filing state income tax returns will get a share of $25 million returned through a sales tax credit.

The bill, independent of whether the ballot question passes or fails, reduces the recreational marijuana sales tax rate from 10 percent to 8 percent. Hickenlooper said that adjustment was made in an effort to prevent marijuana sales from being diverted to the black market.

(c)2015 The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.)