Gov. Jared Polis at Prop EE kickoff

Gov. Jared Polis at the campaign kickoff for Proposition EE, Sept. 10, 2020. 

With a $3.3 billion cut to the 2020-21 state budget and less revenue available in future years, efforts by Democrats to move forward on major agenda items such as preschool education have skidded to a halt.

So backers of Proposition EE are turning to the voters to move forward in providing that early head start for Colorado kids.

Proposition EE, which if approved in November would hike taxes on tobacco products and levy the first-ever tax on vaping, launched their campaign Thursday, bringing along their most prominent supporter: Gov. Jared Polis.

The General Assembly referred the measure to the ballot to do three things: backfill some of the budget cuts to K-12 education, launch additional tobacco cessation and prevention services, and fund what Polis calls "universal preschool."

The measure asks voters to approve major increases on taxes for cigarettes, from the current 84 cents per pack, gradually increasing to $2.64 by 2027. Higher taxes on other tobacco products would also gradually increase from the current 40% of list price to 62% by 2027.

Vaping products that contain liquid nicotine, which currently aren't taxed in Colorado, would be taxed at 30% in 2021, increasing to 62% by 2027. Statewide health surveys have shown that Colorado has the highest rate for teen vaping in the nation, at least twice the national average of 13%

The taxes are expected to generate $175.6 million in revenue in 2021-22. By 2027-28, that revenue could reach $276 million, according to a draft of the Blue Book, the voter's guide to ballot measures. 

The first three years of revenue would to go backfill budget cuts to K-12 education, with a separate portion to rural schools. A separate portion in those first three years would to go housing, tobacco education and legal assistance for low-income Coloradans facing eviction. In year four, all but a small portion devoted to tobacco education and cessation would fund expanded preschool education of at least 10 hours per week.

Education, especially for younger students, has been among Polis' top priority as governor. "One of the biggest reasons that I ran for governor was that I wanted Colorado to become a state where every child ... gets the great education they need," Polis said. "Early childhood education is absolutely critical for helping children realize their potential." He called the ballot measure the next step after full-day kindergarten.

Polis' Boldly Forward Colorado, a committee he set up in 2018 to initially help with the transition, put $50,000* into the campaign, according to campaign finance reports filed this week by A Brighter, Healthier Future for Colorado’s Kids, the campaign committee backing Proposition EE. However, when asked about the donation at Thursday's kickoff and whether there would be more, Polis said to ask the Boldly Forward group. "They obviously support a lot of what I do" but can speak for themselves, he said. 

Dr. Robin Deterding of Children's Hospital spoke about the effects of vaping on Colorado kids, calling it among the top health risks for teens. She said 29% of Colorado kids vape, but that kids are also price-sensitive. "We've made it easier to vape," she said, which she said leads to other tobacco use and a greater risk for other addictions. 

Parent Lori Pace has middle-school- and high-school-age children, including one who testified at the Capitol and talked about the peer pressure associated with vaping. She said 80%-90% of the kids at her school vape. "That's the math she knows," Pace said. Vaping pens are prevalent in school bathrooms and even in the classroom. It's a problem in Black and brown communities, she said. Proposition EE is very personal, Pace added. There isn't a child out there who isn't impacted by this, she said. "Vaping is definitely a part of their daily lives, including spending lunch money on vaping products. 

"Too many families can't choose preschool because of the cost," according to Dawnae Dent, a preschool teacher and education coach at Mile High Early Learning in Denver, where the news conference was held. Colorado has some of the lowest funding in the nation for preschool, and only about 40% of those who qualify are funded, Dent said. "Universal preschool means every 4-year-old can go to kindergarten, prepared and ready to succeed" as well as reduce learning gaps. "By voting yes, you become part of the village it takes to raise a child up" and break the cycle of poverty. 

Mike Johnston is a former state senator, teacher and principal and now CEO of Gary Community Investments, which has put $500,000 into the Prop EE campaign. "The best way for our kids to get to the finish line is to get to the starting line on time," and that means every 4-year-old should have access to preschool. "This is one of the broadest coalitions," Johnston said, he had ever been part of, which includes bipartisan support, labor, urban leaders and rural leaders. This is something to bring the state together, Johnson said. 

Polis deflected a question on whether the state budget would eventually be responsible for covering the costs of preschool education. 

As to opposition, Polis said there have "always been powerful interests opposed to change." Whether that will come from the tobacco industry is yet to be seen. An anti-Prop EE committee — "No on EE — A Bad Deal for Colorado," was registered on Aug. 31 but has yet to report any contributions. 

No on EE spokeswoman Michelle Lyng told Colorado Politics that while the tobacco and vaping industries are likely to participate in the "No" campaign, she believes other groups will be involved as well, more focused on the issue of raising taxes in the middle of a pandemic. Blue-collar workers have lost their jobs, she said. "These are the same people this tax increase targets. I appreciate that people are concerned about health but they have to pay the bills." 

"It's not the right time for a tax increase," Lyng said. "We will roll out our coalition in the coming weeks."

Correction: a previous version misstated the amount that Polis has given to the Prop EE committee. 

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