DENVER – Colorado lawmakers at odds over whether to continue certain cigarette taxes found an unexpected compromise Friday with a Republican proposal to use the money to help students pay for college.
The tentative deal would direct the $28 million expected to be raised from the 2.9 percent state sales tax next fiscal year to the College Opportunity Fund. It’s a stipend program created in 2006 for students to pay toward tuition at a college of their choice.
House Republicans, who are in the minority, spent Friday morning arguing against the tax, saying it grows government at the expense of the poor. Democrats argued the tax would encourage healthy behavior.
Knowing that the tax would pass because they didn’t have the votes to block it, Republicans proposed the amendment to direct the tax money to the college fund. Democrats agreed.
Without the amendment, the tax money would go to the state’s general fund without a specific appropriation.
“I’m not a fan of increasing these $28 million to the growth of government. But if we’re going to do it, and it was going to pass ... I can’t think of a better place for this to go than to higher education,” said Colorado Springs Rep. Mark Waller, House Republican leader.
The tax proposal faces a final vote in the House before the Senate considers it.
Democratic House Speaker Mark Ferrandino said his party will stick by the agreement in the House, but noted it’s still up to budget writers and the Senate to leave it intact.
“I think there’s a desire to put money into higher education. Whatever vehicle we can find to do that, that’s great,” Ferrandino said.
The proposed budget for higher education for next year is $656 million. The College Opportunity Fund is expected to get $265 million, not counting the $28 million.
Cigarettes still are subject to taxes, even without the 2.9 percent sales-tax rate. Colorado also levies 84 cents per pack of excise tax, which is intended to offset a negative impact to society. Colorado’s cigarette excise tax remains below the national mean of $1.46 a pack, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.