Colorado marijuana tax hike proposal to assist schooling loses instructor’s union assist

Colorado’s political group pushing to raise taxes on recreational marijuana to fund after-school programs for impoverished students lost the support of the state teacher’s union, though officials behind the initiative say they’re unconcerned.

Learning Opportunities for Colorado’s Kids must collect nearly 250,000 voter signatures to place the proposed Learning Enrichment and Academic Progress (LEAP) program, or Initiative 25, on the November ballot. The measure would ask voters for a 5% excise tax increase on recreational marijuana by 2024 which would raise an estimated $137 million annually for tutoring programs, mental health care, career training and more for children.

The state teacher’s union, the Colorado Education Association, recently withdrew its support from the measure, instead taking a neutral stance on the issue with President Amie Baca-Oehlert citing “concerns and uncertainties” about how it would be implemented.

Money collected from the tax hike would be given directly to education providers, but it’s not yet clear who would qualify or how the state would pay them, Frank Valdez, a spokesman for the union, said. Those unclear logistics make up the bulk of the group’s concerns.

Former state Sen. Mike Johnston, who now works as president and CEO of Gary Community Investments and is heading the Initiative 25 effort, said those details would come if voters approve the measure. He reached out to the union for help crafting the proposal and even without the group’s explicit support, Johnston said the signature-collection effort is moving as quickly as he’s ever seen.

Money collected through the raised taxes would pay for after-school programs, tutoring and more for about 100,000 of the state’s most impoverished students, Johnston said. And it couldn’t come soon enough since school districts across the state are combating what’s commonly known as “summer slide,” where students forget or lose bits of what they learned in the previous school year. That problem has been exacerbated by the pandemic.

“We’ll be ready ahead of schedule,” Johnston said. “Particularly after COVID, people are really keenly aware of some of the lost learning.”

Even without the teacher’s union behind it, Initiative 25 still enjoys bipartisan support from former Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter and former Republican Gov. Bill Owens, among a swathe of other politicians and education advocates.

Those most likely to oppose it, marijuana industry groups, are keeping quiet for the moment, however.

“We’re obviously aware of it,” Truman Bradley, executive director of the Marijuana Industry Group, told The Denver Post, noting that his organization is reserving comment unless the initiative makes it on to the November ballot.

Johnston’s group has until Aug. 2 to turn the nearly 250,000 signatures into the Secretary of State’s Office for verification.