Op-Ed, 565 words

Drawing a Lesson from Colorado’s Conflicting Tax Votes

How would Coloradans have voted on a school tax that would only collect more revenue from the super rich?

Jason Salzman

“School Tax Fails.”

That was the Denver Post’s lead headline the day after two-thirds of Colorado voters defeated a ballot initiative that would have raised the state’s income tax to fund K-12 public education.

In smaller type, readers found news of another state-wide tax initiative: “Measure Imposing Taxes on Recreational Marijuana Wins Handily.”



Colorado legalized marijuana last year, opening the door for a new revenue source. This time, Colorado voters approved the pot tax.

The funny thing is, the pot tax is also a school tax. About half the taxes generated from Colorado’s legalized marijuana sales will go toward building new schools. The rest will cover pot regulation costs.

The pot measure will place a 10 percent and 15 percent tax on retail and wholesale marijuana sales, respectively.

The school tax would have raised tax rates from 4.63 percent to 5 percent on incomes up to $75,000, and to 5.9 percent on incomes higher than that threshold. Colorado has a flat income tax that’s the same no matter how much someone earns.

With the tax increase, families earning the median income of $57,000 would pay an additional $133 per year.

And how much more tax would the median Colorado family pay under the new pot tax? Zippo, because most don’t buy marijuana.

What’s to learn here?

You’re tempted to say that Coloradans are unabashedly selfish, unwilling to chip in an average of $133 measly dollars more to the school system.

But they’re willing to force their pot-loving neighbors to foot that bill. Just as long as they don’t have to pay up.

On the other hand, it’s understandable why some Coloradans would say no to a proposal that imposes additional taxes up and down the income ladder.

Yes, the income tax hit richer people harder, but why should it hit your average income earner at all?

Maybe the results of Colorado’s election say that voters are tired of the pervasive income disparity clearly visible everywhere in America. So they decided they’d rather be selfish than pay even part of a bill that they feel rich people and rich corporations should be taking care of.

Colorado voters care about schools, and they’re happy to let pot smokers help build new ones. Polls show voters believe more tax money is needed for education.

But that’s what’s become of inequality in America: The middle class is so financially stressed that folks won’t fork over $133 more every year, even if it does help schools.

I can’t cite a poll to prove my point here, because the question wasn’t asked of Colorado voters.

The school tax proponents blamed the overwhelming loss on people’s anger toward government itself, coming on the heels of the government shutdown and the Affordable Care Act’s website woes.

But Colorado just got through massive flooding as well, and both the state and local government performed beautifully, showcasing why collective action is essential and how well it can work.

So what happened in Colorado on Election Day?

The rich continue to do well while average people hurt. It seems that this combination is enough to kill any middle-class tax increase.

Maybe the solution is to propose an income tax increase only for the rich, giving average folks the chance to fight back with their votes against the inequality that confronts them everywhere they go.

A former media critic for the Rocky Mountain News, Jason Salzman is board chair of Rocky Mountain Media Watch and author of Making the News: A Guide for Activists and Nonprofits. BigMedia.org
Distributed via OtherWords (OtherWords.org)

  • Leigh Andrews

    You have the pot tax backwards: it is 15% at the wholesale level and 10% at the retail level. Because pot enjoys a markup of around 100% at the retail level, the sales tax of 10% will raise more money than the excise tax of 15%.
    If you don’t have children, it’s reasonable not to want to pay more for schools.

    • ESGreco

      You are right. The author reversed the numbers and we missed his error during the editing process. We regret this error. Thank you very much for pointing it out here.

      As for your idea that childless people shouldn’t “want to pay more for schools,” that is a totally separate question. Taken to its logical conclusion, your viewpoint contradicts the whole notion of a universally available and adequate (or excellent) public education system. Without a decent education system for all, children are punished for not choosing to be born to wealthy parents. They don’t get a fair shot in life. In some parts of our country, that’s already the case.

      -Emily Schwartz Greco
      OtherWords Managing Editor

  • Leigh Andrews

    One reason to object to paying more taxes for schools is that adult education programs that used to be conducted in the high schools in an evening program have been passed to the community college, turning classes that used to be modestly priced ($50/course) into courses that cost at least several hundred dollars per course. Most of high school level vo-tech programs have also been placed into the community colleges, where tuition is charged rather than getting the program for free. There is no prospect of restoring these programs at the K-12 level as part of the benefits for the increased taxes..

    The dropout rate in Colorado is amazingly high compared to what I experienced 35 years ago. Were we teaching to the international baccalaureate program standard, which is a fairly demanding academic program at the high school level, the extra taxes might be worthwhile, but a model where we are asked to pay more and get the same or less is unsatisfying.

    • ESGreco

      This is far more nuanced than what you wrote earlier. I think you raise a lot of great points. The bigger question than whether increasing funding for K-12 education in Colorado makes sense right now is why these “either/or” tradeoffs are being discussed at all. There should be no question that we need better schools for children and more robust adult education opportunities as well. By adopting better economic and tax policies, along with smarter spending priorities, we can have both.

      • Leigh Andrews

        Unfortunately, taxes that can easily be viewed as a money grab such as the recent proposed income tax increases (2011 and 2013) are a hard sell. Had I been shown that I would get value for the increased taxes, or even had where the additional revenue would been spent been outlined in detail, I may well have voted for them. Pleas of “it’s for the children” will be met with increased hostility in the future, and not only from people who do not have children.
        I have long viewed things like libraries and trash pickup as the payoff for the taxes that I pay, even though I have never had children to send to school. I benefited from public education, so I don’t have quite the heartburn from paying the present level of taxation that I might, but I do need to see a justification for increased revenues.