Vail Daily column: Pot tax not a panacea
July 14, 2015
This week, The Cannabist (a spin-off publication from The Denver Post covering marijuana related news and culture) proclaimed that tax dollars earmarked for schools "soared" based on revenue collected in May of this year and "crushed" 2014 earnings. Ricardo Baca, the journalist writing the story, put on a decidedly editorialized spin, stating that "the Colorado Department of Revenue's just-released marijuana tax data for May 2015 shows one clear winner: schools."
To set the record straight before any salacious rumors get started, I'm not a regular reader of The Cannabist. But when the story popped up in my Twitter feed following Colorado education policy news, I took notice.
People, especially those from out-of-state visiting our fine valley, often ask those of us working in public education, "Aren't Colorado schools rolling in money collected from all those retail marijuana taxes?"
The short answer is, simply, "no." But like so many things related to education funding … it's complicated.
As a refresher on the tax topic, retail marijuana is subject to the 2.9 percent state sales tax, any local sales taxes and an additional 10 percent state sales tax. In addition, there is a 15 percent excise tax on wholesale marijuana sales from growers to recreational marijuana retailers. It's the excise tax that is earmarked for school construction capital expenses and is largely credited with swaying voters to approve Amendment 64 in 2012. There is an annual cap on the excise tax funds of $40 million, which has yet to be achieved. The other tax monies go into the state's general fund and are to be spent on drug-abuse education, research and substance abuse treatment — all worthy recipients.
As I see it, there are three major problems associated with marijuana taxes, the primary of which is the public's understanding of how these funds are applied to bolster school funding. Since the money is restricted to school building construction or major repairs like roofs and boilers, it cannot be directed to more systemic needs such as improving teacher salaries, reducing class sizes or curriculum, and instructional resource investments. It can't help us add back programs for students that were eliminated or dramatically reduced during the massive funding cuts caused by the recession.
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Second, it's put into a state-level grant fund called BEST (for Building Excellent Schools Today) and the money is distributed to selected schools and districts around the state. Here in Eagle County, the Eagle County Charter Academy building was largely constructed using a grant from BEST approved back in 2009, long before the marijuana tax. To date, the grand total of marijuana dollars that have come to our community schools is $0.
Finally, though Mr. Baca is correct in stating that the marijuana taxes collected are increasing, there is still the $40 million annual cap on how much can be collected and distributed to consider. Don't get me wrong, $40 million is a lot of money and a lot more than was being collected before the legalization of retail marijuana sales! But in the grand scheme of public education spending (for both operational and capital expenses), it's a relatively small amount. $40 million is about enough to build two well-equipped elementary schools or maybe one good-sized middle school with some athletic fields. That's it — for the whole state of Colorado! So while the marijuana taxes may do some good in one or two communities, we shouldn't be billing it as pennies from heaven that are saving our schools from financial woes.
Take note that I'm not taking a professional position on the legalization of marijuana or making any judgments about it. As Eagle County Schools superintendent, I respect that our citizens wish to have marijuana be legal and that its responsible use is a choice for adults.
So, adult Coloradoans and visitors to our state are free to purchase and use marijuana products in accordance with state and local regulations. But let's not fool ourselves into believing this consumption is doing anything to solve our state's chronic (pun intended) education budget woes or helping us to shake off the hangover (pun intended, again) effects of the recession.
Marijuana is a legal, regulated and taxed substance in our state that will build a school or two a year across the state. It is not the panacea to our state's ongoing dysfunctional system of school funding. It's that simple.
Jason E. Glass is the superintendent of Eagle County Schools. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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