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Politics and Government

Voters snap purses shut for statewide tax measures, but are good with taxing tourists and sinners

Some high-country communities OK taxes for schools, open space, but lodging taxes fell in Buena Vista, Cañon City

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Colorado voters resoundingly rejected big statewide tax spikes for education and transportation, but mountain voters again proved they rarely balk at taxes with a provable return — especially when new levies are aimed at tourists, cigarette smokers, pot smokers, developers and second-home owners.

Revenue-hungry municipalities find those taxes an easy lure when they go to voters. This election was no different.

Grand County voters approved retail sales and excise taxes on marijuana and growers. Avon OK’d a $3-per-pack tax on cigarettes. The towns of Moffat and Snowmass Village increased taxes on marijuana. Voters in second-home heavy Telluride approved a property tax hike to finance affordable housing.

Grand Junction voters doubled the city’s lodging tax to 6 percent so the city can lure more tourist-hauling jets to the local airport. A year ago the city asked voters to to tax themselves — with a mill levy increase and bond override — to support schools. Next year Grand Junction voters will weigh an everyone-pays sales tax increase to support a new recreation center.

But this year, the city asked voters to tax those who visit.  
“A tourism tax on others. It was kind of a no-brainer. Not too much opposition. I’m not sure how far we can push our locals but if we can show a return on what taxpayers have been willing to give us to date, we can build trust. And it’s all about trust,” said Robin Brown, the head of the Grand Junction Economic Partnership.

The partnership led the campaign for the lodging tax with a focus on boosting tourism and supporting the Grand Valley’s growing roster of small businesses.

“If our citizens trust we are spending their money in a smart way and they are seeing a return on that, we can continue to ask for their help when we need it,” Brown said.

It doesn’t always work out that way. Steamboat Springs voters rejected renewal of a longtime sales tax that supported a steady stream of jets carrying skiers to the regional airport. But they did overwhelmingly OK the extension of a half-cent sales tax to support schools.

Opponents of Buena Vista’s 2A ballot measure swayed voters against the lodging tax with mailers like this one, arguing the benefits of the per-room tax were not clearly identified.

Voters in Buena Vista and Cañon City rejected lodging taxes, a rarity in resort communities where visitors to hotels and short-term rentals shore up public services and amenities without sticking around too long.   

Jed Selby, the owner of the largest hotel and short-term rental company in Buena Vista, sparked fierce opposition to Buena Vista’s proposal for a $3-to-$6 tax on all hotel rooms and vacation rentals. More than 63 percent of Buena Vista voters rejected the proposal.

“There is almost always a rational nexus between lodging taxes and a benefit to the lodging community. Like jets coming into town. This tax was for capital improvements to emergency services, which is typically a general fund item,” Selby said. “In Aspen it goes to public transportation. In Vail it goes to outdoor recreation and parks and marketing special events. If we are going to have a tax, let’s make sure the benefits are pretty well-considered. That was not the case with this tax.”

When Colorado voters did approve taxes on themselves, they funneled a record amount of dollars into the outdoors. Voters on Tuesday slated more than $1 billion in local funding for the outdoors over the next 20 years.

Chaffee County drew national praise from outdoor groups for its 1A proposal to raise about $1 million a year through a quarter-cent sales tax. The new money will help sustain local farms and ranches while supporting wildfire mitigation work and recreation in Chaffee County’s mountainous public lands. The measure passed with 52 percent of the county’s vote.

Eagle County voters overwhelmingly approved the extension of a property tax to acquire and maintain county open space. Park County voters extended a sales tax to fund land and water conservation.

That’s evidence of the outdoor industry’s surging efforts to establish itself as an economic and political force. On Tuesday, voters across the country approved taxes that set aside $2.8 billion for land conservation, new parks, improving water quality and sustaining farms and ranches. Voters passed 43 ballot questions in 20 states, pushing the total for 2018 voter-approved conservation funding to $7.2 billion over the next 20 years.

Jim Petterson, the Colorado director of the Trust for Public Land, called Tuesday’s vote “a continuation of a trend” in Colorado, noting that Grand County — a relatively conservative county — in 2014 approved the first county open space program in 10 years.

“Voters have consistently shown at the ballot boxes that they care about their backyards and they are willing to tax themselves to protect places they treasure,” Petterson said Wednesday. “We talk a lot about voters being red or blue. And, often, purple here in Colorado. Well, yesterday’s results show we should also talk about Colorado voters being green.”


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