Giving Thought: Prop EE offers health and education benefits

Tamara Tormohlen
Giving Thought
Tamara Tormohlen
Steve Mundinger

Colorado has one of the highest teenage vaping rates in the country and one of the lowest rates of per-pupil spending for public schools.

Both of these facts should concern the state’s voters, and the November ballot offers a measure to address both problems at once. Nobody claims that Proposition EE is a silver bullet for either the public-health problems presented by vaping and tobacco, or our chronically underfunded schools, but it is a healthy start. The measure would even begin providing 10 hours per week of universal, free preschool for all children in Colorado in the year before they enter kindergarten.

“By increasing taxes on tobacco products and closing the tax loophole on vape products, we can boost our public health and support each child’s education,” said Michele Ames, communications director for A Brighter, Healthier Future for Colorado’s Kids.

Advocates say the measure is the state’s best opportunity to create a new funding stream for public schools and preschools. This new revenue would be especially welcome during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has diminished government revenues at all levels, forced budget cuts throughout our education system and placed many preschools in financial trouble.

By phasing in taxes on cigarettes and vaping products (also known as e-cigarettes), Proposition EE would provide:

• $375 million for public schools by 2023

• $2 billion for universal preschools over 10 years

• $35 million for affordable housing and eviction help by 2023

• $110 million for tobacco/vape cessation and other health programs

If Proposition EE is approved, then cigarette taxes would gradually increase from 84 cents per pack in 2020 to $2.64 in 2027. Vaping taxes would follow suit, increasing in line with other tobacco products. Taxes have been shown to reduce smoking and prevent many potential users from even starting. At the same time, they’ve also been shown to provide steady revenue — if rates are increased over time.

Ames explained that Colorado’s last tobacco tax increase — 2004’s Amendment 35 — increased cigarette prices by 320%. Smoking decreased in the ensuing 15 years, she said, but “we are still generating roughly double the revenue today on tobacco taxes than we were before Amendment 35 was approved by voters.”

Preventing smoking and vaping is much cheaper for society than trying after the fact to treat the various diseases they cause. And taxes discourage smoking especially among price-sensitive groups such as teenagers. “It’s time for (a tax) increase to keep up with the rest of the country and reap the public health benefits,” Ames added.

Also important is the help that the initiative could provide for Colorado public schools. According to the Colorado Legislative Council, our state ranks anywhere from 39th to 47th among American states in funding per-pupil, or school funding per million dollars of personal income. In other words, we’re well below average already, and the pandemic has only aggravated the problem.

A win for Proposition EE won’t restore all the lost funding or make virtual learning any easier for teachers and children, but it would equip teachers and administrators with financial resources to cope with all the health- and technology-related improvements that the pandemic has required of schools. These people deliver a vital service and they deserve our support.

This column doesn’t provide enough space to describe all the details of Proposition EE, but the pathway it provides toward universal preschool in Colorado is also important. Research has shown that high-quality early childhood education improves children’s educational, economic and health prospects later in life, from higher graduation rates and wages to a lower likelihood of involvement in the criminal justice system.

“For every dollar invested in quality preschool, between $8 and $16 is avoided in societal cost and between $2 and $3 is returned in increased per capita earnings and jobs,” Ames said.

Proposition EE is a good chance to shore up our schools and preschools during a hugely challenging time. It also delivers public health benefits that will drive down our future health care costs. I urge you to vote and to vote early!

Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of Aspen Community Foundation.