Denver residents could be voting on another sales tax in November: In its recommendations report presented to Denver City Council's Safety, Housing, Education, and Homelessness Committee last week, the Denver Climate Action Task Force proposed a 0.25 percent general sales tax that would raise funds to meet the goals of job creation in renewable energy technology, as well as investment in solar energy, environmental justice programs, clean transportation alternatives, and increased efficiency in homes/buildings.
The task force was established in January under the Climate Action Plan, pushed by Mayor Michael Hancock and then-Denver City Council President Jolon Clark, that set up the new Office of Climate Action, Sustainability and Resiliency. Its 26 members met fourteen times over five months to come up with a ten-year plan that include detailed recommendations "to strengthen Denver’s work to address climate change equitably."
Thomas Riggle, task force member and co-founder of Resilient Denver, notes that those policy recommendations can't move forward without a significant amount of money — over $70 million by 2022. About half of this revenue would be generated through the proposed 0.25 percent general sales tax (2.5 cents on a ten-dollar purchase) that would apply to personal property, products and services, but not to purchases of food, water, fuel, medical supplies or feminine hygiene products.
Beyond the proposed tax, the task force is looking to other measures — vehicle efficiency fees, parking meter fee increases and parking garage/parking permit fees — as recommended sources of revenue to help meet the 2022 goals; these categories are estimated to raise another $37.2 million.
Even though the nation is experiencing an economic downturn, Riggle thinks Denver residents understand the importance of protecting the environment now. “People are aware of climate change at this point, and we have strong support for addressing it in Denver,” he says. “If we don’t address it now, it’s going to cost us a lot more in the future.”
Resilient Denver is currently promoting a city energy tax initiative that it began pushing in March 2019 and finally got on the November 2020 ballot. The initiative proposes an excise tax on electricity and natural gas consumption for residences and businesses in Denver; it would raise an estimated $47 million in the first year, according to proponents, and go up from there.
If Denver City Council approves the task force's proposed initiative, Resilient Denver will pull the energy tax initiative off the ballot. "I'm hopeful for getting some sort of funding on the ballot...whether it's through city council or our own efforts," says Resilient Denver spokesperson Ean Thomas Tafoya.
The task force sales tax proposal prioritizes equity, specifying that 50 percent of revenue go toward front-line, low-income communities, Tafoya points out. The recommendations report states that "City Council must put in place appropriate guardrails to ensure that a new sales tax does not overly burden those in Denver most impacted by social injustices, including what products are exempt from sales tax and specificity about how the money will be spent in a way that will most benefit people of color and under-resourced communities."
Members of the task force agree that Denver City Council has been cooperative and supportive of their efforts, and they have high hopes that the initiative will be on the November ballot. “Overall, the consensus seems to be support for the work of the task force…our collective group responsibility is to work with the city to actually do the work to implement the strategies,” says Naomi Amaha, task force member and steering committee member of Denver Streets Partnership. “We know that completing the recommendations was just one phase of multiple phases.”
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Federal action will be needed to fully combat the effects of climate change, according to task force member Dominique Gomez, program director at Colorado State University's Salazar Center for North American Conservation, but she says that Denver also needs to take action to protect its residents, now and in the future. “I really do hope, even with the economic pain that so many Denverites are feeling, that there is a recognition of the need to invest in climate change to prevent the worst effects,” Gomez says. “There is more we can do to make sure that we protect the most vulnerable within our walls."
Riggle and Tafoya are hopeful that Denver residents will take action, too. No other citywide tax initiatives have been approved for the November ballot thus far, they note, and there are only two other statewide tax initiatives.
The deadline for submitting signatures for initiatives is August 3; that's the day when Denver City Council will also vote on whether to put the tax force proposal on the November ballot.
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that the tax would equate to 2.5 cents on a $10 purchase.