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Nicotine taxes for preschool, vaccine exemptions draw crowds to Colorado Capitol in waning days

Sandra Fish/For Chalkbeat

As the clock winds down on the 2019 legislative session, two groups packed the Capitol Wednesday afternoon for a final say on two controversial bills: asking voters to raise taxes on nicotine products and making it harder to get vaccination exemptions.

Both bills would require an initial vote on the Senate floor Thursday, followed by a final vote on Friday in order to pass before the end of the 2019 session.

Senate Republicans have been slowing work in the Senate in recent weeks with extended debate on bills, even on those they support. So measures requiring extensive debate could present a problem with only two days left and a packed agenda.

Lawmakers and Gov. Jared Polis announced the bill to ask voters to raise taxes on nicotine and extend them to vaping products just a week ago. It passed the House in a final vote Wednesday morning, despite heavy lobbying against it from the tobacco industry.

Opponents, including some Democrats, said the bill would hurt small businesses and create a black market for tobacco products — and that “sin taxes” are the wrong way to fund government. Republicans also argued against creating new bureaucracies to manage the programs outlined in the bill, which include paying for afterschool and summer enrichment programs for children from low-income families.

A large portion of the money — an estimated $111 million — would go to expand existing state-funded preschool programs.

Young people puffing on e-cigarettes could be seen on the Capitol steps Wednesday afternoon, preparing to testify before the bill’s first committee.

Senate Majority Leader Steven Fenberg, a Boulder Democrat, called the nicotine tax proposal “a relatively new issue on the table.”

“Frankly, we have had blinders on the last several days (looking at) just what’s immediately in front of us in the Senate,” he said. “To be honest, I don’t think that debate has happened in a robust way yet in our caucus or in the Senate.”

It passed out of the Senate Finance Committee late Wednesday on a party line vote, but it isn’t clear if the measure has enough votes in the Senate.

“I think there are some people that are hesitant to vote for it because they inherently aren’t crazy about tobacco taxes,” Fenberg said. “I think it’s a little different than just a typical tobacco tax because of the vaping component. And there is arguably an epidemic going on there, especially with our youth.”

Plus, he said, the extra money, more than $300 million a year, would be tied to Democratic priorities such as health care and education.

Meanwhile, moms and children again rallied at the Capitol to oppose a measure that would require parents claiming exemptions from vaccinations to file the initial paperwork in person at local health departments. Gov. Jared Polis has said he does not support that provision.

A House committee hearing on the measure went until 4 a.m. in mid-April, and the House debated the bill on the floor until 3:30 a.m. In Wednesday’s Senate Finance Committee, debate was limited to four hours, drawing the ire of vaccine opponents. Early Thursday morning, in a party line vote, the committee sent the bill to the full Senate.

“It had its time in the House, had a very robust debate,” Fenberg said. “People on both sides care deeply about this. And it’s obviously a national issue at the moment.”

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