Cerabino: Legalizing pot not a high priority for fixing schools

I wouldn’t be surprised if legalized marijuana becomes the next Florida Lottery.

As state-taxed sales of recreational marijuana become legal in other states, the pressure on Florida to follow suit will be strong. It’s already a talking point among the Democratic candidates for governor.

“A Democrat who doesn’t call for the full legalization of marijuana I do not believe can win the Democratic primary,” Orlando trial lawyer John Morgan told The News Service of Florida.

Morgan bankrolled the successful ballot initiative to legalize medicinal marijuana in Florida. But the real money is in recreational use, where states traditionally pocket double-digit excise taxes that amount to hundreds of millions of dollars.

Take, for example, what the Palm Beach County School District is going through now. The district is deciding whether to ask local taxpayers to raise their own property taxes slightly to pay for more school security, mental health care for students and a pay raise for teachers.

It would be an easier path to have a pot of pot money to tap.

That’s what Arizona is considering. Two years ago, Arizona voters rejected legalizing recreational marijuana, but a new bipartisan effort is underway with the state’s governor saying that a vote for marijuana would provide a good chunk of the $680 million needed to raise the pay of public school teachers there.

The benefit to public education was how the Florida Lottery was sold to Floridians in 1986. But it has proven to be far from a magic fix.

The majority of the lottery money goes to pay off winners, to advertise and for administrative costs. What’s left, which is routinely more than a billion dollars a year, goes into the state’s Education Enhancement Trust Fund to pay for everything from school construction to college scholarships to teacher bonuses.

But there was an unintended consequence to this. The new source of education dollars allowed state legislators to find other uses for tax money that would have otherwise been earmarked for education.

So in the end, school districts received relatively little help with their operational expenses and Florida teachers remained among the nation’s most underpaid, averaging $47,267 a year, which is 45th in the nation, according to National Education Association’s 2017 rankings.

That’s why property tax increases for education, like the one being considered now in Palm Beach County, still are needed.

If only we had that marijuana money, all our problems would be solved! Right?

Well, maybe not.

Take a look at Colorado, which pioneered the legalization of marijuana in 2012 with a provision that the taxes collected go for schools.

Like the Florida Lottery, legalized marijuana in Colorado was supposed to be a godsend for public education.

And sales of recreational marijuana in Colorado are taxed heavily. The state gets a 15 percent excise tax in the sale between growers and retailers. Then another special sales tax of 10 percent tax is levied on the retail sale, which is in addition to the 2.9 percent state sales tax, and any local marijuana tax, which in Denver is another 3.5 percent.

Colorado’s marijuana sales hit a record $1.5 billion last year. With all the taxes that money brings, you’d think the state wouldn’t have any issues with school funding.

And yet, public school teachers across Colorado held a two-day walkout in April, picketing the state Capitol while holding protest signs that said things such as, “We’d like the weed money, man.”

As with the Florida Lottery, Colorado’s legalization of marijuana hasn’t filtered down in any meaningful way to pay school teachers better or bolster per-pupil spending in schools.

About 85 percent of that 10 percent special sales tax on marijuana goes to law enforcement, substance abuse treatment, education, and other associated costs of the legalization. And in the excise tax collected, the first $40 million has to go for school construction or repairs in public and charter schools. What’s left goes into another education fund or is put in the state’s general fund.

In the end, it doesn’t do enough for teachers or their students.

Colorado’s teacher pay, which averages $51,808 a year, is 31st in the nation, according to the NEA rankings. And the state’s per-pupil spending ranks 27th among the states (Florida is 40th), with half of Colorado’s school districts operating at four days a week to save money.

So when you hear people saying that legalized marijuana is the answer to funding public education in Florida, remember the lottery and consider what’s happening in Colorado.

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