Editorial: Marijuana can’t cure school funding
One way to win voter support for legalizing vices is to tell the public that the money raised will go to something wholesome — say, parks, trails or education.
So it is that many states designate part of their lottery proceeds to education, and Colorado earmarks lottery money for GOCO, the Great Outdoors Colorado Program and the Conservation Trust Fund for trails, land acquisition, local parks and open space. Lottery money also goes to Colorado Parks and Wildlife and, the lottery website says, “spill-off or any extra funds are provided to the Colorado’s Public School Capitol Construction Assistance Fund.”
The state constitutional amendment legalizing recreational use of marijuana mandated that some money go to school construction.
It’s smart politics, in selling something that has traditionally been illegal and considered by many to be immoral or otherwise harmful, to say we can accept the evil because it supports a greater good. It’s better than raising income, sales or property taxes, the argument goes, because the only people paying will be those adults who choose of their free will to partake of whatever sin is being legalized.
The public then hears that millions of dollars will go to schools, so many people believe that budget problems are solved.
In 2007, The New York Times determined that lotteries accounted for less than 1 percent to 5 percent of the total revenue for K-12 education in states that use lottery money for schools.
“In reality,” The Times reported, “most of the money raised by lotteries is used simply to sustain the games themselves, including marketing, prizes and vendor commissions.”
So voters feel deceived and angry when they hear that schools or some other public benefit they believed would be covered by this new revenue are still short of money.
This is happening now in Colorado with marijuana money. The Post Independent gets letters, questions and Facebook comments complaining that the schools are still saying they need money despite voter approval of recreational marijuana.
“Where is the money we were promised?” one reader asked. “We want to see our schools receive checks that were promised to the districts. Our teachers should be given a raise. What about security for our schools? This topic should be first priority.”
It’s true that Amendment 64 required that the first $40 million raised each year through an excise tax on wholesale marijuana sales go to school construction.
Any excise tax revenue above $40 million goes to the public school fund, which supports general appropriations. However, those revenues haven’t yet topped $40 million a year. Rep. Bob Rankin, R-Carbondale who is a member of the Legislature’s Joint Budget Committee, told the PI in an email that excise tax money may top $40 million in fiscal 2016-17.
If it does, though, it won’t be by huge amounts.
Rankin noted that all marijuana sales tax revenue is subject to legislative appropriation and goes to cover marijuana regulation, education, treatment, law enforcement training, youth prevention and outreach, bullying prevention and more. While some marijuana sales tax money might go to schools in grants, again, it won’t be much.
The excise tax money earmarked for construction goes into the BEST pool — Building Excellent Schools Today. In a state with $13.9 billion in school construction needs across 178 public school districts and more than 1,800 school buildings, $50 million in BEST grants were available last year.
Those grants require local matching money, so when Glenwood Springs Elementary School got $9 million of BEST money for its renovation, only some of which comes from marijuana, Roaring Fork School District would have lost the grant had voters last fall not approved a much larger construction bond issue.
To underscore: Other than up to $40 million in construction money, which itself is barely a drop in the bucket of what’s needed, only a little loose change from marijuana taxes goes to education in Colorado.
It does nothing and was not designed to do anything for teacher pay, classroom materials or school security. It does nothing to touch the $900 million shortfall between K-12 funding and what state voters approved with Amendment 23 in 2000.
So voters might feel like they were sold a bill of goods by rhetoric used to advocate passage of Amendment 64. That’s true to the extent that they chose to believe it.
Schools cost lots of money. That’s not to say that government couldn’t and shouldn’t look for efficiencies. But we should not delude ourselves to believe that letting folks get high legally is going to be adequate to preserve and protect what is arguably our most important government program.
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