Retail marijuana is helping kids go to college — at least in Pueblo County.
Revenue from the excise tax on retail marijuana sales has provided $420,000 for 210 high school graduates from Pueblo County to attend either Pueblo Community College or Colorado State University-Pueblo in the fall.
The $2,000 scholarships are renewable each year for four years.
Brandon Barber is among the 23 students who got a jump-start on the Pueblo County Scholarship Fund a year early, when the excess excise tax provided the opportunity for the 2016-17 school year.
“I probably would’ve gone to college in Pueblo, but this scholarship made it an easier decision,” said Barber, who will be a sophomore in the fall. “This made it easier on my family and me to pay for college without going into debt.”
Barber still has some student loans but said, “I’m really thankful for this scholarship. It shows an example of the community coming together and evolving. They’re making a lot of money on marijuana and I think what they’re doing is a step in the right direction.”
Sal Pace, a Pueblo County commissioner and former state legislator, helped put a ballot measure before voters in November 2015 to use some of the retail marijuana excise tax for scholarships.
“I wanted 100 percent of it to go for scholarships,” Pace said, “but we settled on a minimum of 50 percent.”
Still, Pace said it’s among the most satisfying accomplishments of his political career.
“It’s the type of thing when you start a career in government, you dream of getting something meaningful done,” he said. “This sort of thing can have lasting impact for generations.
“I’ve had a number of students say they wouldn’t have gone to college if they hadn’t gotten the scholarship. If there’s a couple of kids who go to college that wouldn’t have, that means we’re changing their lives, maybe changing generations of lives after them.
“Plus, it helps sustain our colleges and universities.”
Beverly Duran is executive director of the Pueblo Hispanic Education Foundation, a nonprofit organization that uses fundraising to help provide college scholarships for students of all races. She is thrilled by the opportunity to help more kids, as PHEF was chosen to administer the Pueblo County Scholarship Fund.
“The idea was so innovative by the commissioners to funnel money back into our community and to these students,” Duran said. “We’ve always had so much need and not enough money every year to give scholarships to kids who wanted them.
“So this was an amazing opportunity to be able to touch so many more families.”
The 2017 Pueblo County Scholarship Fund consists of $369,000 from marijuana excise tax revenue and $51,000 in grant-matching funds from the Colorado Opportunity Scholarship Initiative.
Pueblo County’s excise tax on all marijuana grown in the county began at 1 percent in 2016 and increased to 2 percent in 2017. It is scheduled to increase 1 percent each year until it reaches a maximum of 5 percent.
Pace, however, said for the first time publicly that he is considering proposing a change.
“I might try to stop the increase at 2.5 or 3 percent,” he said. “The goal is not to have the highest excise tax; it’s to do the most with our excise tax.”
Pace said the tax revenue is likely to grow with large Denver retail grow businesses contemplating a move to Pueblo.
STOPPING THE ‘BRAIN DRAIN’
Jim Parco is a Pueblo native, a graduate of the Air Force Academy, a retired lieutenant colonel and an associate professor in the economics and business department at Colorado College. He’s also the owner of MesaOrganics and Purplebee’s, retail grow and distribution properties in Pueblo County.
Obviously, Parco said, he’s in favor of the scholarship program.
“I’m extremely biased on this; you can’t have too much education,” Parco said. “We need to encourage kids to stay local once you educate them and keep that intellectual talent within our community; otherwise we’re bleeding talent.”
Pace called it a “brain drain” when smart kids leave home to attend college and choose not to return to their hometown.
Barber, a Pueblo Centennial High School graduate who is studying criminology with a minor in computer science, said he’s also aware of the brain drain.
“A lot of bright students are leaving the state,” he said. “To do a scholarship program like this will help keep students at home and give them more of a chance to contribute to our city and its economy and well-being.”
WILL SPRINGS FOLLOW SUIT?
Richard Skorman, president of the Colorado Springs City Council, said Pueblo has an innovative approach.
“It definitely begs the question should we do the same thing here, and I think we should,” Skorman said. “I think we should get the money from recreational marijuana, because right now it’s being bled to other communities like Pueblo and Manitou Springs.
“I’d like to see it put in front of the voters, like they did in Pueblo, to have the opportunity to make recreational marijuana legal to sell in Colorado Springs so we could capture that tax revenue. It’s revenue we should be getting, and then we can regulate it as a business, too.”
Does Skorman think voters would pass a ballot measure to make retail marijuana sales legal in Colorado Springs?
“The majority of the voters in Colorado Springs voted for Amendment 64,” Skorman said of the 2012 ballot measure that legalized retail marijuana in Colorado. “Now that the experiment has happened, it’s hard to know how the public feels. They may not feel as warm about it, or they may be fine.
“Nationally, it’s getting more and more accepted. We’re no longer the ‘guinea pig’ state. It would be my thought people would want to see it legal so we could capture that revenue. And here it could be significant; it could be $8 [million]-$10 million. We’re a much larger city than Pueblo, and it just depends on how many stores we allow.
“It’s not just the excise tax, but it would be the sales tax we’d capture that’s now going to Manitou and Pueblo. If the voters don’t want it, then we have our answer. But we should let them vote.”
El Paso County Commissioner Peggy Littleton, who served on the Colorado State Board of Education from 2004-11, recalled the Amendment 64 campaign that promised funding for financially strapped schools if retail marijuana was legalized.
“The whole sales job for Amendment 64 was for the kids, right? It’s going to go for education,” Littleton said. “And so if you have a community that’s decided to maximize Amendment 64 and put some of that excise tax back into education, I can’t see that it’s a bad thing to do.”
Does she anticipate El Paso County or Colorado Springs ever getting to a similar situation?
“I think that would certainly be something we’d have to look at,” she said. “It would be worth considering and studying.”