Proposition EE, nicotine tax measure for universal preschool, cruises to victory

Close-up of a child’s hands building with Legos.
Funded by Proposition EE, universal preschool for 4-year-olds would launch in the fall of 2023. (Esi Grünhagen/Pixabay)

Colorado voters easily approved a nicotine tax measure Tuesday that will fund universal free preschool for 4-year-olds statewide starting in the fall of 2023.

Proposition EE will help Gov. Jared Polis achieve one of his signature campaign promises, a major expansion of Colorado’s publicly funded preschool program. Initially, the new tax will send funding to rural schools, state health and housing programs, and the state education budget. Starting in 2023, most of the proceeds will go toward statewide universal preschool, and in 2024, a smaller chunk of money will go toward smoking and vaping cessation programs.

Polis highlighted the measure’s support from voters across the political spectrum during a press call Tuesday night, saying the victory represented “Republicans, independents, Democrats coming together around health and around kids.”

He said, “First and foremost, our 4-year-olds, each one of them, regardless of their family’s wealth or circumstances will be able to start school prepared for success.”

Polis and an array of early education and health groups supported Proposition EE, saying the measure would help reduce Colorado’s highest-in-the-nation teen vaping rates while also making preschool accessible to many more families. Opponents, including discount cigarette makers, argued that a so-called sin tax will put a disproportionate burden on low-income consumers during tough economic times.   

The new tax, which would take effect Jan. 1, would more than triple state taxes on cigarettes by 2027 to $2.64 a pack and also impose new taxes and fees on smokeless tobacco and vaping products. Colorado doesn’t currently tax vaping products.

Jake Williams, executive director of the advocacy group Healthier Colorado, called the passage of Proposition EE a “gigantic win for our kids.”

“Tonight, thankfully, Is the beginning of the end of our teen vaping epidemic in Colorado,” he said. “We know that the price increase this measure brings will push kids away from these products.”

As of now, Colorado’s preschool program is reserved for children from low-income families, and those with learning delays or other risk factors. It serves only about 40% of eligible children. Statewide, only about a quarter of 4-year-olds attend publicly funded preschool. 

With Proposition EE’s passage, the share of 4-year-olds in public preschool could increase to 75% or more depending on the number of families who opt in. Children in the program would be guaranteed 10 hours a week of preschool, but it’s not yet clear how that would be split over the school week. 

Children from low-income families or those with other risk factors would have access to more hours of preschool or other support services if the tax yields additional preschool revenue as advocates expect.

Colorado voters have not historically supported statewide tax measures for education initiatives, rejecting Proposition CC last year, Amendment 73 in 2018, and Amendment 66 in 2013. They also rejected a nicotine tax for health programs in 2016. 

Proposition EE’s passage, it will represent a major win for Polis, who pledged to institute universal, full-day kindergarten and preschool by the end of his first term in January 2023. He got tuition-free, full-day kindergarten in place last fall, and while he won’t quite make the end-of-term deadline for tuition-free preschool, he’ll come close. 

Check back here for updated election results throughout the night.

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