The cigarette and vaping display at a convenience store in Denver's Capitol Hill neighborhood on April 30, 2019. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

Colorado voters could decide this November whether to fund free preschool for 4-year-olds statewide by taxing tobacco and vaping products. 

On Friday, two citizens took the first step toward putting the question on November’s ballot, filing more than a dozen possible versions with the state’s Office of Legislative Council, which reviews potential initiatives before sending them to the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office.

New taxes on a pack of cigarettes or vaping products would range from $1.20 to $2.60, depending on which version of the ballot proposal is selected. Currently, taxes are 84 cents a pack, among the lowest in the country.

The money from a new vaping and tobacco tax, which is sure to be vehemently opposed by the tobacco industry, would go a long way toward helping Gov. Jared Polis make good on his promise to offer free preschool to all 4-year-olds by the end of his first term. 

One version of the ballot question would put $300 million more a year toward state-funded preschool. That’s far above the $27 million that Polis requested in this year’s budget and that, so far, lawmakers of both parties have been reluctant to endorse.

Anna Jo Haynes, a longtime early childhood education advocate, and Jim Garcia, CEO of Denver’s Clínica Tepeyac and a board member of the advocacy group Healthier Colorado, filed the ballot initiatives. Filing so many versions — all with slightly different taxing levels and methods — is a common practice before the options are winnowed down to a single question.

The idea of taxing nicotine to fund preschool is not new.

Last year, state Rep. Yadira Caraveo, a Thornton Democrat and pediatrician, sponsored a bill to ask voters to do just that. Despite Polis’ support, the Colorado Senate rejected the idea amid a robust campaign from vaping and tobacco interests and concerns about using a regressive tax to pay for an essential service. That meant it never went to the ballot.

Now, proponents are taking matters into their own hands. State lawmakers in recent days said it was likely that a nicotine tax increase would originate outside the Capitol in 2020.


Ann Schimke is a senior reporter at Chalkbeat Colorado covering early childhood education. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and the Denver Post. She holds a master’s degree in education policy from the University...