Hickenlooper, GOP leadership continue fiery battle over pot tax mistake on eve of special session

DENVER – On the eve of next week’s special session to address a marijuana tax mistake made in this year’s legislative session, Gov. John Hickenlooper blasted state Republicans for playing political games with taxpayer money and said the bipartisan gains made in the Legislature this year had been lost in the “political circus” surrounding the session.

But the same Republicans who he took to task returned the favor, saying Hickenlooper is disregarding state law about raising taxpayer revenues.

Hickenlooper said the special districts that have been left without funding due to the mistake had agreed to fund the special session, which starts Monday and will cost at least $75,000 because it will take a minimum of three days.

Republican leadership has said over the past month that the special session isn’t needed, was overtly costly to taxpayers and that the funding mistake could be fixed once next year’s legislative session gets underway in January.

But Hickenlooper, who was noticeably agitated at the political back-and-forth that has inundated the state political world since he announced the session, offered to cancel the session if Republicans would publicly pledge to immediately fix the mistake to kick off next year’s session.

“If there were a way we could go out and have a commitment, a public commitment, that we’d fix this in the first month, by the end of January, we wouldn’t need to call a special session, but we have been unable to do that,” Hickenlooper said. “Obviously they said they’d do that, but they aren’t willing to become public with that.”

The Regional Transportation District and Scientific and Cultural Facilities District are among several that are losing money because of the mistake, which essentially took away the sales tax on recreational marijuana in the districts.

Programs at the Denver Zoo and the Museum of Nature and Science are funded through the SCFD pot tax money.

The mistake is expected to cost the districts around $600,000 a month, according to the governor, and could end up costing the districts upwards of $2 million by the time January’s session is underway.

So on Friday, Hickenlooper said that the districts had agreed to fund the session by eating its cost off the marijuana tax money that would come back in once the mistake was fixed. He noted that most of the cost of the special session comes from the legislators’ per diem payments.

“Other than this mistake that was made in this building by the drafters of the original bill, the special districts in no way caused this, and they’re being penalized,” Hickenlooper said. “Now out of the goodness of their heart, they’re saying if some people have a concern with the cost, take it off the top. As the first money begins to be collected, if it’s done in three days, if it’s $75,000, they’re willing to pay. That’s not bribing anything. This is to fix a basic mistake that was made.”

Hickenlooper ripped Senate President Kevin Grantham and other Republicans who have taken to fundraising off of Hickenlooper’s call for a special session.

“We had talked to the Republicans beforehand. We thought we had some agreement from their leadership, and I think to say that they hadn’t heard anything is just not true,” Hickenlooper said. "Our biggest concern on all this is that this would end up getting turned into a political circus, and I think that concern has turned out to be true.”

Grantham’s fundraising email for his leadership PAC accused Hickenlooper of “toying with taxpayer dollars to advance his political agenda.”

“I think it’s highly regrettable we’d make this into a partisan issue. We did consult with President Grantham and we did work on trying to figure out what dates would work. And I think somehow to use it to send out fundraising emails is not fair,” Hickenlooper retorted Friday. “I think they’re pretending as if they’re saving the state from some unconstitutional tax—all the while, while they were agreeing to the fix and helping us draft the resolution.”

Hickenlooper also brushed asides another Republican concern with the session: that it violates TABOR laws because the Legislature is raising the funding for the special districts, which Republicans argue is something voters have to approve.

Hickenlooper instead argued that voters had already approved the tax and the session was only changing what the tax covers.

“I don’t see any legal issue,” he said.

House Minority Leader Patrick Neville has been among the Republicans arguing the special session violates Article 10, Section 20, Subsection 4 of the Colorado Constitution, which mandates voters approve “any new tax, tax rate increase…or a tax policy change directly causing a net tax revenue gain to any district.”

Neville did not immediately respond to questions asking him to respond to Hickenlooper’s comments.

But Hickenlooper was clear he thought Republicans were in the wrong by asking the special districts to wait on receiving their money until at least January.

Grantham had said in recent weeks that the funding mistake didn’t constitute an emergency for the districts, but Hickenlooper rebuffed him.

“It’s not his $2 million is it? A lot of politicians are happy to say it’s not an emergency when it’s not their money,” Hickenlooper said. “I think if it was his money, and let’s say it was $20,000 he was going to lose between now and the end of January, my guess is he would step up and say, ‘Yeah, this is kind of important, right?’”

But Grantham continued to slam the governor over the special session and over his getting the special districts to foot the bill for the session in a reply that was as fiery as Hickenlooper’s own statements:

"Having interested parties pay the cost of a special session has to be one of the worst ideas I’ve ever heard from this Governor, coming in close second to his baffling and botched decision to hold an unnecessary special session without doing the pre-planning and consultations required to improve our chance of success. This idea would set a terrible precedent and has the potential to create huge public misperceptions about the fairness and integrity of the process. We sometimes hear the criticism that politicians are 'bought and paid for,' but what the Governor's proposing here would make that literally true. What's next? Will he try lining-up sponsorships for the regular session as well? His complete mishandling of this situation, from beginning to end, doesn’t bode well for next week." –Senate President Kevin Grantham

Conservative group Americans for Prosperity-Colorado was equally combative against Hickenlooper, as it sent out two emails Friday morning saying the governor was “playing games” of his own with taxpayer money, and asking Coloradans to contact their state lawmakers to oppose the session.

It’s still unclear if Republicans will play ball during the session. Legislative rules mean the bill will have to go through the Senate Finance Committee, where Republicans could kill the measure early on.

The House and Senate, which are controlled by different parties, could offer up different bills to accomplish the fix to Senate Bill 267, which was seen as a bipartisan feat accomplished in the final days of the legislature to shore up hospital provider fee funding and other budgetary measures.

And yet despite the back-and-forth from Colorado Democrats and Republicans, Hickenlooper said he believed the session would go ahead as planned and that the Legislature would fix the tax measure one way or another.

“I am hopeful. I am going to roll up my sleeves,” Hickenlooper said. “Our team is ready to engage from Day 1 … This shouldn’t be a place where we’re counting votes. It’s a nonpartisan issue. It’s fixing a mistake, an honest mistake, that was made that everyone took a hand in. So anyway, that’s my story. That’s what happened, and hopefully we can get this done properly.”

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