If it’s a good bet that marijuana will someday be legalized in Oregon and a good bet that the drug will be taxed, should those taxes be dedicated to public schools? (Beth Nakamura/The Oregonian/2012)
Special to the Hillsboro Argus By Special to the Hillsboro Argus
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on December 02, 2013 at 7:59 AM, updated December 02, 2013 at 12:43 PM

By Walt Hellman

In 1969 a Gallup poll revealed that 12 percent of adult Americans favored the legalization of marijuana. Now the figure is drastically higher with 58 percent favoring the legalization, including a jump of 10 percentage points just this past year. Washington state and Colorado have now legalized marijuana statewide.

It seems the tipping point has been reached and it is a safe bet that marijuana will soon be legalized in Oregon. It is a safer bet that it will be taxed.
Walt Hellman – Argus.jpgView full sizeWalt Hellman

The property tax limitations of the ’90s severely cut school property taxes in Oregon. Though state income taxes now fund the bulk of K-12 schools, no dedicated replacement tax was ever instituted, causing the enormous school funding problems experienced statewide today.

Marijuana legalization is coming to Oregon. The drug will be taxed. Why not dedicate those taxes to schools?

The first thing to say about such a possibility is that even if realized it will make only a small dent in the funding lost through the property tax limitations.

Washington state, with almost double our population and with its high tax rate on marijuana, may collect $200 million per year, and Colorado is expecting to collect less than $70 million per year from its statewide measure (there are also local measures).

A substantial marijuana tax in Oregon might raise about $100 million per biennium. While this sounds like a lot, it pales in comparison with the current inadequate Oregon K-12 biennium figure of about $5.6 billion. Another comparison is that for 2011-2013, the Oregon Lottery gave about $360 million to K-12 schools, according to Chuck Baumann, the Lottery’s interim public affairs manager.

So the marijuana tax would likely bring in less than the lottery, and it can’t be looked at as “the” school funding solution, but it would be a real source of revenue to dedicate to schools and it might grow with time. It could help at the edges.

What are the arguments against dedicating marijuana taxes to schools? Of course, saying “marijuana and schools” in the same breath seems wrong. But remember, the question here is not whether marijuana should be legalized. That’s likely to happen. The question is what should be done with the tax money.

If taxes are going to be collected based on what many would consider a vice, shouldn’t those taxes go to a better purpose? And what better purpose is there than helping to relieve the awful school shortfalls that were caused by school tax cuts in the first place?

Some might advocate that the taxes go for drug abuse treatment. Perhaps a small portion should, but a better education system giving more kids reason to stay in school is terrific drug abuse prevention.
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Support of school funding will make a stronger case for marijuana legalization but that support should be tied to a greater protection of children from the drug in the specifics of the law now being drafted.

While we are looking at making vice pay its debt to society, we should also look at raising the beer tax, currently under one cent per glass, and the lowest in the country, and also dedicating that to schools. A combination of these taxes could raise school funding by a more than a rounding error.

The notion of using vice, whether it be gambling, drugs, or alcohol, to support education may seem repugnant. In some ways it is. But voters have shown over and over that they will not support general state tax increases for schools. A dramatic confirmation of this trend occurred in Colorado’s recent election, in which voters overwhelmingly approved a marijuana tax for schools (65 percent to 35 percent) while on the same ballot they overwhelmingly rejected a state income tax increase to fund schools.

As sad as it is, the current generation of Oregonians doesn’t want to bear the burden of increasing general taxes for schools. Until a real breakthrough comes, as recently occurred in California with the sales tax increase for schools, we in Oregon have no choice but to look to “sin” taxes people are more likely to approve.

Legalizing marijuana may or may not be a good thing, but dedicating marijuana taxes to schools certainly would be. Even limited help is help.
Walt Hellman is a retired high school physics teacher who lives in Hillsboro. Reach him at [email protected]