Could a new vaping and tobacco tax pay for free preschool in Colorado? Advocates want to ask voters in November.

Colorado voters could decide this November whether to fund free preschool for 4-year-olds statewide by taxing tobacco and vaping products. 

On Friday, two citizens took the first step toward putting the question on November’s ballot, filing more than a dozen possible versions with the state’s Office of Legislative Council, which reviews potential initiatives before sending them to the Secretary of State’s Office.

The money from a new vaping and tobacco tax, which is sure to be vehemently opposed by the tobacco industry, would go a long way toward helping Gov. Jared Polis make good on his promise to offer free preschool to all 4-year-olds by the end of his first term. 

One version of the ballot question would put $300 million more a year toward state-funded preschool. That’s far above the $27 million that Polis requested in this year’s budget and that so far, lawmakers of both parties have been reluctant to endorse.

Anna Jo Haynes, a longtime early childhood education advocate, and Jim Garcia, CEO of Denver’s Clínica Tepeyac and a board member of the advocacy group Healthier Colorado, filed the ballot initiatives. Filing so many versions — all with slightly different taxing levels and methods — is a common practice before the options are winnowed down to a single question.

The idea of taxing nicotine to fund preschool is not new. Last year, state Rep. Yadira Caraveo, a Thornton Democrat and pediatrician, sponsored a bill to ask voters to do just that. Despite Polis’ support, the Colorado Senate rejected the idea amid a robust campaign from vaping and tobacco interests and concerns about using a regressive tax to pay for an essential service. That meant it never went to the ballot. Now proponents are taking matters into their own hands.

Backers of the ballot effort say new taxes will help address Colorado’s highest-in-the-nation youth vaping rates by making tobacco and vaping products more expensive, a move that’s been shown to decrease sales. Colorado does not currently tax the liquid nicotine used in e-cigarettes, making vaping a cheap and attractive alternative to cigarettes

“Placing taxes on these products is the best way of keeping these products out of the hands of kids,” said Jake Williams, executive director of Healthier Colorado. 

New taxes on a pack of cigarettes or vaping products would range from $1.20 to $2.60, depending on which version of the ballot proposal is selected. At 84 cents a pack, Colorado’s cigarette tax is among the lowest in the country. With a $1.01 federal tobacco tax, the measure would bring total taxes to between $3.05 and $4.45 a pack.

Williams called the potential new tax a win-win that would improve health and early education in the state.

Historically, Colorado voters have not supported statewide ballot initiatives to support education through property tax or sales tax hikes. 

But Bill Jaeger, vice president for early childhood and policy initiatives at the Colorado Children’s Campaign, said the latest effort may be more promising since Coloradans have shown a willingness to pass “sin taxes” on both tobacco and marijuana in the past.

He said even if Polis is successful in securing more preschool funding during the legislative session this spring, more money will be needed to make it widely accessible. 

“We have to recognize that it’s taken us 30 years to get where we are and where we are is serving 24% of all 4-year-olds in the state,” he said.

Besides funding universal preschool, a new tobacco and vaping tax would raise $30 million to $35 million annually for programs that help people quit smoking or vaping.

In addition, about $15 million a year would go to programs, such as safety net health clinics, that currently get funding from the tobacco tax passed by Colorado voters in 2004. That amount is meant to make up for the financial hit those programs could take if tobacco sales go down as expected, and thus revenue from the 2004 tobacco tax shrinks.

Bureau Chief Erica Meltzer contributed to this report.