Colorado proposal would triple cigarette tax, fund preschool, fight teen vaping

A proposed tax on nicotine products could double Colorado’s preschool investment, pay for afterschool and summer enrichment programs for low-income families, and chip away at Colorado’s highest-in-the-nation teen vaping rate.

Colorado voters could be asked this November to triple the tax on cigarettes to $2.59 a pack, and impose a 62 percent tax on e-cigarettes and other tobacco products. Colorado does not currently tax the liquid nicotine used in e-cigarettes, making vaping a cheap and attractive alternative to cigarettes, while other tobacco products are taxed at 40 percent.

If successful — always a big if in Colorado — the tax would generate more than $300 million a year with the proceeds to be divided between education and health care needs. An additional $111 million would be put into the Colorado Preschool Program, twice the current allocation, and $47 million would be generated for enrichment programs for low-income children.

The tax would also generate roughly $45 million for tobacco prevention and cessation programs, $75 million to lower health care costs for consumers, and $38 million for school-based mental health services.

Gov. Jared Polis, who is backing the tax increase, campaigned on expanding preschool access and providing free full-day kindergarten. On Wednesday, he described the nicotine tax proposal as a “pathway to universal preschool, with a goal of making half-day available throughout our state.”

Places like Denver that have their own preschool revenue streams could offer full-day programs to more students, he said.

Colorado’s state-funded preschool program, called the Colorado Preschool Program, provides half-day preschool to 3- and 4-year-olds who come from low-income families, have parents who didn’t finish high school, or other risk factors.

The program served about 27,000 children last year, most of them 4-year-olds in half-day programs that operate four days a week. State officials estimate that 8,200 more at-risk 4-year-olds need access to preschool.

Currently, almost 20 percent of preschool money is actually going to full-day kindergarten. The kindergarten plan making its way through the legislature would free up 5,000 state-funded preschool slots. However, the legislature did not fund an additional request from Polis for another 3,000 preschool slots.

A major new revenue source will be necessary if Colorado is to dramatically expand preschool access in the way Polis envisioned when he launched his campaign. Providers would also have to find more space and recruit more teachers to a notoriously low-paid profession.

Colorado voters have traditionally been reluctant to approve statewide taxes, and in 2016, 53 percent of them rejected a tax increase on cigarettes. At 84 cents a pack, Colorado’s cigarette tax is among the lowest in the country.

Colorado voters did approve a cigarette tax back in 2004, one of the few successful statewide tax increases since the advent of the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights in 1992.

The chief sponsor of a bill to place the tax on the ballot is state Rep. Yadira Caraveo, a Thornton Democrat and pediatrician who said she sees the need for all these programs on a daily basis among her patients. Supporters have seven days to get the tax proposal through the House and Senate and to the governor’s desk before the legislature adjourns.

It could share space on the ballot with as many as three other spending measures: a proposal to remove a cap on how much revenue the state can keep, another to legalize sports betting and tax it at 10 percent, and a $2.34 billion transportation bond measure authorized by lawmakers back in 2018.

Conventional political wisdom in Colorado is that the more tax measures on the ballot, the more likely they all are to fail. In 2018, amid a blue wave, voters still rejected tax increases for transportation and education, as well as a bond measure for road construction. The odd-year electorate is seen as more conservative and tax averse.

Polis said he believes this effort will be successful where the previous tobacco tax failed in part because it includes a tax on vaping products and there is far more awareness of the harms of vaping.

“We also feel there is a broader coalition around making sure we have the resources that we need to really communicate to get this across the finish lane,” he said.

DaVita CEO Kent Thiry had been working with a coalition to put yet another spending proposal on the ballot to cover costs of afterschool and summer enrichment programs for low-income families. Thiry is suspending that effort to put his support behind the nicotine tax, an important boost for an effort that will surely face well-funded opposition.

That means: Get ready for a lot of campaign ads.