Colorado lawmakers “hear it all the time,” says Sen. Rachel Zenzinger.
“There’s so much suspicion around what we’re doing with marijuana money,” the Arvada Democrat told The Colorado Sun. “There is this perception that there’s a lot of money and we’re just not spending it on education like we should.”
The complaints from constituents and policy advocates are aimed at the Marijuana Tax Cash Fund, a depository for about half of the $272 million the state is expected to generate this fiscal year from marijuana-related taxes. The legislature has guidelines for how the money should be spent, but lawmakers can use it for just about anything they want. And in practice, they do, splitting the money among dozens of different programs, across more than a dozen state agencies.
“Right now, it just kind of is a piggy bank that folks look to when they want something funded,” said Sen. Dominick Moreno, a Commerce City Democrat who leads the Joint Budget Committee. “It has become a pool of money that you can just raid.”
Now — five-plus years and $1 billion in tax collections since recreational marijuana was legalized in Colorado — top Democratic budget writers say they want to change how pot tax revenue is appropriated, recommending new guardrails for a fund that will total $159 million next budget year. The result: Instead of the 14 preferred uses for marijuana money currently spelled out in state law, state budget writers have settled on just two priorities: education and the opioid crisis.
For context, here’s how $251 million was divvied up in 2017-2018, according to constitutional and statutory requirements:
- $98 million, or 39%, was allocated to three funds that support K-12 education, with about $40 million of that earmarked for a school construction grant program known as BEST.
- $16.7 million, or 7%, was distributed to local governments.
- $12.4 million, or 5%, was retained in the general fund for discretionary spending.
- The remaining $123.9 million, or 49%, was left for lawmakers to spend via the Marijuana Tax Cash Fund, with money going to a wide range of authorized categories, including behavioral health services, education programs, agriculture and housing.
Education and opioids are new priorities
The argument for spending more on education is this: That’s how Amendment 64 was sold to voters. And it’s what many Coloradans believe the money is being spent on already. It just wasn’t spelled out that way in the constitution, which only specified how some of the money should be spent.
As for opioids, lawmakers have long sought to use the proceeds of cannabis sales to combat substance abuse, whether through drug treatment programs, educating kids on the dangers of drugs or providing grants to law enforcement. In the first years of legalization, the focus was on marijuana use. But opioids have become the more pressing public health concern, claiming thousands of lives.
“Opioids, it’s related to drug use, and it’s a crisis,” said Zenzinger, who also serves on the budget-writing committee. “And we have to be responsive to the fact that we have a crisis.”
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Zenzinger said lawmakers made headway in redirecting funding to opioids and schools this legislative session.
The legislature earmarked $28 million in marijuana cash funds for new programs, and the bulk of those bills fall clearly into one category or the other.
Lawmakers used the money on a pilot program for treating opioid-dependent patients in Pueblo and Routt counties, to crack down on opioid access and to help people find treatment. They tapped marijuana money for school nurse grants, a physical education pilot program and special education. They also funded at least one bill completely unrelated to schools or opioids: a social security disability benefit program.
New spending priorities may mean budget cuts elsewhere
Moreno, though, doesn’t want to stop with the marijuana funds set aside each year for new legislation. He wants to reorient the entire $159 million tax cash fund to support education and opioids, a tall task that will mean either finding new funding for — or cutting — around $130 million of ongoing state programming.
In next year’s budget, which starts July 1, the recipients of that $130 million in marijuana money run the gamut from marijuana-related oversight and research to things that don’t have a clear link to drug policy or schools, like the 4-H program at the State Fair and a career development program for veterans.
“It’s going to be a really hard conversation that we have to have,” Moreno said. And, he added, it will likely take years to re-allocate all the money.
The conversation comes at a critical time. Lawmakers are trying to convince voters they need more money to pay for the essentials of government like K-12 schools, roads and higher education.
And, despite passing a milestone $1 billion in cumulative pot revenue this year, budget writers fear that marijuana money won’t grow forever. After years of explosive growth, revenue is showing signs of leveling off. And with legalization spreading to more states, Colorado increasingly faces competition for customers.
So even if lawmakers succeed in redirecting more money to schools, it may still fall short of the public’s expectations.
Lisa Weil, the executive director of Great Education Colorado, told The Sun she appreciates any additional money lawmakers can send to schools, but Colorado can’t solve its school funding woes simply by rerouting money from other legislative priorities. Even after years of budget growth, the state still underfunds schools by nearly $600 million annually.
“A myth has taken hold in Colorado that marijuana taxes have solved Colorado’s school funding crisis,” Weil said in a statement. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”