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In this 2015 file photo, a budtender holds two marijuana buds on his fingers on the way to a customer at the Denver Kush Club. (David Zalubowski, AP Photo, File)

Colorado voters on Tuesday rejected a proposal to increase taxes on recreational marijuana to pay for out-of-school support services for students like tutoring and therapy.

Supporters of Proposition 119 admitted defeat at about 8:30 p.m.

With more than a million ballots counted at 10 p.m., the measure was failing with 54% rejecting the initiative and 46% in support, a 90,000-vote deficit

The mood at the Maven Hotel in downtown Denver, where about 50 supporters for Proposition 119 held the official Yes on 119 watch party, was hopeful around 7 p.m. as attendees sipped drinks and nibbled on hors d’oeuvres while watching early results trickle in. But the mood began to fade after 8 p.m. as the measure looked increasingly unlikely to succeed. Few supporters remained by 8:30 p.m.

Judy Solano, a Democratic former state representative and retired school teacher who helped lead the opposition, said she was “thrilled that the voters were smart enough to realize that creating a huge new bureaucracy to take care of one issue in education… would have been a very expensive and unnecessary thing to do.”

She thinks voters “saw through” supporters’ arguments and decided “we have to properly fund our schools before we do anything else.”

Members of Colorado’s cannabis industry were also celebrating.

“Despite being significantly outspent by proponents, Colorado voters still soundly rejected using cannabis as a piggy bank for out-of-state special interest projects,” said Peter Marcus, spokesman for Boulder-based cannabis company Terrapin Care Station, which worked with opponents of the measure on its defeat. “We can’t balance the state budget and education on the backs of cannabis consumers; we need long-term solutions that address structural deficiencies.”

Supporters of the measure were disappointed.

“The significant gap in achievement between students from wealthy families and their low-income peers has been an unfortunate educational outcome in Colorado for years — and tonight’s results mean it will likely continue to get worse before it gets better,” Curtis Hubbard, a spokesman for the Yes on Prop. 119 committee, said in a statement. “Access to affordable, quality after-school education services is not a possibility for many families living in Colorado — and we will work with anyone who has a better idea on how to tackle the problem.”

Josh Penry, a Republican former state senator and consultant to the Yes on Prop. 119 campaign, attributed the loss to opposition on both sides of the aisle, with Democrats and Republicans both finding elements of the measure to dislike.

“Base Democrats rallied against the school choice elements, base Republicans objected to the tax increase, and in an electorate dominated by voters over the age 60, there just weren’t enough parents and voters in the middle to get us to 50% plus 1,” Penry said.

Supporters of Proposition 119 had said the program would give kids from lower income families a chance to access tutoring and enrichment programs, helping those kids catch up academically to more privileged peers and start to regain ground they lost during the pandemic.

The measure enjoyed bipartisan support, including from high-profile Colorado Democrats like Gov. Jared Polis, former Gov. Bill Ritter, former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb, former U.S. Sen. Mark Udall and state Sen. Rhonda Fields. Republican former Gov. Bill Owens was a supporter, as was GOP state Sen. Bob Gardner, of Colorado Springs. 

“The hours our children spend after school are a critical time, and Proposition 119 will allow more kids to benefit from after-school learning activities — from tutoring to music and art,” Polis said in a statement.

But the measure also faced bipartisan opposition. State Sen. Julie Gonzales, a Denver Democrat, and Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert, a Douglas County Republican, co-wrote an opinion piece in The Gazette opposing the measure

Also against the measure was Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser, a Democrat who said the measure “diverts new marijuana tax revenue from appropriate uses, shifts limited state funds from our public K-12 schools and it lacks robust oversight and accountability.”

Some public education advocates saw it as a slippery slope to a voucher system and a threat to public education in the state. Any new tax revenue for education, they argued, should go into the existing system rather than a whole new program. Opponents in the cannabis industry said the increased sales tax would have punished those least able to pay and could push consumers back into the black market.

Sam Heiden, a Denver resident who was voting in his first Denver election on Tuesday, voted no on Proposition 119, questioning why dollars from increased taxes wouldn’t go to benefit the state’s public schools instead of out-of-school learning opportunities.

“Why is it not just going directly to schools instead of out-of-school activities that may or may not benefit certain groups of students?” the 26-year-old Democrat asked after voting at the Wellington E. Webb Municipal Office Building in downtown Denver.

Tom Lucas, a 70-year-old Denver Democrat, thought the marijuana industry was unfairly targeted.

“If it’s that important, then the tax burden should be spread across a wider tax base than just marijuana. If we’re gonna kill the goose, we’re gonna wind up having a black market again,” he said.

Lucas said he understands the need to help children succeed academically, “but if kids are not achieving in school, it seems to me the money should go to schools and not to after school programs.”

The program would have largely been paid for by raising recreational marijuana taxes by 5 percentage points, to 20% from 15%, phased in over three years. Non-partisan legislative staff estimated the new taxes would have raised more than $87 million next fiscal year, and the new revenue would have been exempt from state constitutional spending limits. 

Gary Community Investment Company donated more than $2.2 million to support the measure, with nearly $780,000 of that coming since Oct. 20. 

The issue committee raised $2.6 million and spent $2.4 million through Oct. 27, which doesn’t include another $250,000 Gary Community Investment Company donated on Oct. 28. Ready Colorado, a conservative education reform nonprofit, donated $525,000 to the issue committee.

The opposition to 119 was not as well financed. 

The Cannabis Community for Fairness and Safety, an issue committee that opposed the ballot measure, received $25,000 each from the Marijuana Industry Association and The Green Solution. The committee spent nearly $31,000 on a website, advertising and flyers.

No on Prop 119 reported spending only $7,500, all of it on a website, which came via an in-kind contribution from Coloradans Against School Vouchers. The national Working Families Organization donated more than $5,100 in texting services last week to Coloradans Against School Vouchers’ fight against 119.

Read more about Proposition 119.

Colorado Sun staff writers Erica Breunlin and Tatiana Flowers contributed to this report. Colorado Sun correspondent Sandra Fish also contributed.

Daniel Ducassi is a former Colorado Sun staff writer.