Denver tax hike to fight climate change goes to voters

The Denver increase could generate $36 million in its first year

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Voters in Denver will be asked on the ballot this November if their sales taxes should be raised to fund efforts to reduce the city’s climate footprint.

If approved, the city beginning in January would impose a 0.25% sales tax, whose funding would be dedicated to renewable energy efforts, including “steep reductions” in fossil fuel consumption and “significant improvements” in air and water quality, the bill states.

Half of the revenue will be dedicated directly to underserved communities with a “strong lens toward equity, race and social justice.”

The Denver City Council referred the measure to the ballot on Aug. 3 in an 11-1 vote, with Councilman Chris Hinds absent.

Councilman Kevin Flynn, who represents District 2 in southwest Denver, voted against the measure on grounds that the city “settled on the default, the easy way out, which is sales tax, which is regressive.” Asking voters to give the city money in the wake of a pandemic and economic downturn, he said, is not the “appropriate way” to raise this revenue.

“I feel that we’re asking too much from our voters right now,” Flynn reasoned, highlighting the fact that the city will also ask voters to raise sales taxes to fund homelessness services, which Flynn plans to support.

He said he would rather see Resilient Denver’s ballot initiative move forward, which would have established a tax on electricity and natural gas. Resilient Denver advocates say they will now pull their ballot initiative with the referral of this new tax.

Alexis Morris agreed with Flynn. She was one of 11 residents who weighed in during the public hearing on the bill, and the only one who spoke in opposition.

“The environment is a really important issue to me in my heart, … but I cannot support a regressive tax like this that unjustly puts the burden on lower-class Americans,” she said, arguing that the tax should be shifted to the biggest polluters.

Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca, who represents the Elyria-Swansea neighborhood in District 9, agreed with Flynn and Morris, but maintained voters should have a choice.

“I think our voters are smart, and I think our voters are frustrated about how we’ve used tax dollars,” she said. “And when they see tax increases on the ballot, I don’t think we’ve given them a reason to pass any of them … or proof of our ability to manage their money wisely in the first place.”

The increase is estimated to generate about $36 million in its first year, accounting for the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, according to the city’s 26-member Climate Action Task Force, which led the initiative.

The committee is made up of representatives from the Sierra Club, Denver Metro Association of Realtors, Xcel Energy, the International Indigenous Youth Council, Denver Streets Partnership and others.

Funds would be used for clean energy jobs, investments in solar power, neighborhood-based environmental and climate justice programs, adaptation and resiliency programs that help vulnerable communities prepare for climate change, clean transportation programs, and more.

The tax, albeit just a step in many more to potentially come, would help the city meet its environmental goals of achieving a 40% decrease in Denver’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2025, a 60% drop by 2030 and a 100% decrease by 2040.

By implementing “bold policies,” the task force maintains, Denver can be positioned as “a model for the nation” that centers its environmental policy “design, programs, and investments in front-line communities and inspire(s) people in our city to embrace sustainability as a value.”

The environmental committee estimates the city will need up to $3.4 billion to fully realize those plans, and the sales tax increase would be but a step of possibly many more to come, including implementing a vehicle efficiency fee, raising parking meters and parking permit fees. The investment cost of a few billion dollars pales in comparison, they say, to the roughly $20 billion they estimate could be incurred from inaction.

“This to me is the right way to go,” said Councilman Paul Kashmann, who represents District 6 in southeast Denver. “It’s an essential step in preparing Denver to remain a viable city in the future and doing our part to solve this problem. We can’t solve the world’s problem. But this is an opportunity for us to lead.”

This story is from Colorado Politics, a statewide political and public policy news journal. Used by permission. For more, visit coloradopolitics.com.

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