Election 2021 Denver

A sign reminds voters to keep their distance in the battle against COVID-19 as they cast ballots at a polling site in the Wellington Webb Building as voting opens Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021, in downtown Denver.

Colorado voters were quickly on their way to spiking three requests in early returns on Tuesday's statewide ballot: a hike in marijuana taxes to pay for off-campus education, another to lower property tax rates and a largely Republican effort to give legislators more say in how the governor spends money.

Proposition 119, which sought to raise state sales tax on retail marijuana from its current 15% to 20%, was losing handily across the state.

Proposition 120, to reduce property tax assessment rates, also fell behind early and never recovered.

Amendment 78, which addressed how executive and legislative branch spend certain tax dollars, was losing big-time in early unofficial returns Tuesday night.

The failure of 119 broke with tradition. While Colorado voters historically oppose sales tax increases for such essentials as transportation and schools, they also have a history of supporting sin taxes, including repeated increases on marijuana, as well as tobacco and gambling.

Denver voters, meanwhile, narrowly supported Proposition 119 but rejected a city decision, Initiative 300, that would have raised the city sales tax on recreational marijuana by 1.5% to bring in about $7 million annually for pandemic research.

Had the votes gone the other way, pot users who buy their stash in the capital city would have been paying a 33% sales tax, the third-highest in the country behind Seattle (47.1%) and Los Angeles (34.5%). Colorado would have tied Montana for the second-highest retail marijuana tax in the country, behind Washington's 37%.

Legislative analysts estimated that sharp hike in the state pot tax would have brought in about $160 million in its first three years.

The windfall would have gone to the new Learning Enrichment and Academic Progress Program to help pay for Colorado kids ages 5 to 17 to take part in “out-of-school learning,” which could be tutoring, special needs assistance, training in a second language, tech-career training programs or mental health services, with a priority for students living below the federal poverty level.

The after-school plan also would have gotten about $22 million from the state land board that normally would go to the Public Education Permanent Fund, investments that ultimately benefit K-12 education.

The principle and interest that otherwise would be invested in the fund represents a $40 million loss over a decade but in 20 years will be three times that, said Chris Brown, an analyst for the Common Sense Institute in Denver.

The measure, nonetheless, had broad bipartisan support, backed by Republican former Gov. Bill Owens, Democratic former Gov. Bill Ritter and current Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat who made expanding education a main plank of his first-term platform. 

Amendment 78 took aim at the current and future governors' spending authority. The proposal spun from conservatives' disapproved of how Gov. Jared Polis unilaterally spent nearly $1.7 billion in emergency federal pandemic relief dollars when the legislature wasn't in session last year.

That amounted to an "executive branch slush fund," said Michael Fields, executive director of Colorado Rising State Action, which collected the signatures to get the amendment on the ballot. 

The measure also would have required state agencies that collect fees for an agency's operation to have those decisions routed through the legislature, as well as including public hearings. 

Democrats saw it as a cynical attempt to throttle the executive branch, while needlessly slowing down the legislative process debating and dictating how earmarked dollars are spent. That also raised concerns for local government officials who look for help from the federal government during disasters, such as last year's wildfires. Critics of Amendment 78 said requiring the General Assembly to vote on how those dollars are spent would unnecessarily delay that assistance. 

Because it changed the constitution, Amendment 78 needed 55% to pass.

Meanwhile, Proposition 120 aimed to reduce the residential property tax rate from 7.15% to 6.5% and the non-residential property tax assessment rate from 29% to 26.4%.

The proposition also would have allowed the state to keep and spend $25 million that normally would have to be refunded to taxpayers under the state constitution's revenue cap for five years.

After the ballot measure was filed last spring, however, legislators concerned about the potential loss of billions of dollars in revenue rewrote the property tax definitions to mitigate the damage to the state budget. They lowered tax rates for two years.

With those changes, the outcome of the reduction would have applied to residential properties that are multi-family units, such as condos, townhomes and apartment buildings. As for the commercial rate break, only lodging would have qualified.

The legislative maneuver reduced the projected gains for taxpayers from about $1.1 billion annually to about $150 million, according to proponents.

If voters had passed the proposition, the courts would have had to settle the dispute between voters and lawmakers.

Colorado Rising State Action also collaborated with other conservative advocacy groups to get Proposition 120 and Amendment 78 on the ballot.

Staff writer Scott Weiser contributed to this story.