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A store selling vaping products in Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

A last-minute proposal pushed by Gov. Jared Polis and key Democratic lawmakers will ask voters to increase cigarette taxes and add a new tax on nicotine used in vaping devices to raise about $300 million annually. The money would go toward paying for health and education programs, according to people briefed on the measure.

Officials with advocacy groups said Polis administration officials invited them to an announcement on Wednesday when details would be released publicly about their plans to have the legislature refer the measure to voters in November.

One stakeholder also shared an email a top aide to Polis sent to members of advocacy groups “relating to taxing vaping products that could generate revenue that will support education and health care.” Her email said a noon news conference at the state Capitol would have further details.

Polis administration officials said they would not discuss the details for the measure until Wednesday.

MORE: Read more politics and government coverage from The Colorado Sun.

The push for a referred measure comes in the waning days of the legislative session, which is scheduled to end on May 3. The lawmakers would need to approve the ballot question by passing a bill with a simple majority in each chamber, where 300-plus other bills are still pending ahead of next week’s adjournment.

The revenue raised by the new taxes would be split, with 50 percent going to pay for education needs and 50 percent going toward health-related issues, including a bolstering of behavioral health care for youth, those familiar with the measure said.

It’s the third revenue-raising measure that Democrats want to put on the 2019 ballot. Top lawmakers are moving forward with legislation to permanently repeal the state’s spending caps under the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights and send any additional revenue to education and transportation.

The other potential ballot question would ask voters to authorize sports betting in Colorado and direct the money toward its implementation and to the state historical fund and community college system, and to the Colorado Water Plan.

Children’s Hospital Colorado and Healthier Colorado, a non-partisan, nonprofit advocacy group, have been involved in the administration’s crafting of the proposal.

The Donnell-Kay Foundation, a Denver-based nonprofit that pushes for education improvements, is advocating a separate ballot initiative to offer tax credits to businesses that donate money parents could tap to pay for out-of-school educational materials and tutoring.

MORE: Read more education coverage from The Colorado Sun.

That measure, for which a ballot title has been set, proposes a tax of 5 cents per milliliter of liquid nicotine used in vapes to administer the program, but the revenue stream would have generated a maximum of $4.1 million in the 2020-21 fiscal year, according to a budget analysis. The tax credits would have cost the state as much as $75 million in that year, growing to $175 million annually by the 2022-23 fiscal year, that analysis found.

The Polis administration contacted those supporting the tax-credit proposal to see if they would drop their plans and line up instead behind the larger vaping and tobacco tax increase. They agreed to support Polis’ push, though they also reserved the option to dust off their tax-credit ballot initiative if the measure founders.

In 2016, Colorado voters rejected, by a 53% to 47% margin, a proposed constitutional Amendment that would have tripled the taxes on a pack of cigarettes to $2.59 and increase the tax on other tobacco products. Neither of the new taxes would have applied to e-cigarettes.

The ballot question, known as Amendment 72, would have generated about $300 million in net new annual tax revenue with money distributed mostly to medical research, existing health programs and anti-tobacco education.

Altria, the parent company of tobacco company Philip Morris, contributed more than $16 million to defeat the effort — spending that topped all other ballot measures that year.
The last time Colorado voters raised cigarette and tobacco taxes was in 2004. Combined, the taxes brought in nearly $138 million last fiscal year, most of which went toward health care and tobacco education programs. As of 2018, Colorado’s cigarette tax rate was the 37th-highest in the nation.