Would taxing marijuana pay for universal pre-K in Maryland? Hogan and Jealous spar over the answer

Maryland Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous has proposed funding universal pre-kindergarten by legalizing and taxing marijuana.

The former NAACP president says the state can generate more than enough money from taxing pot to pay for his plan, but Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s campaign says even if marijuana were legalized the taxes generated would fall well short.

So, who’s right?

The Jealous campaign estimates the state can raise about $378 million a year from taxing marijuana. The campaign arrived at that number based off tax revenues from the drug in Colorado, where recreational use is already legal. Jealous then proposes taxing the drug at a higher rate than Colorado, and adjusts for Maryland’s slightly greater population to arrive at the revenue estimate. Jealous suggests a 9 percent sales tax on marijuana — the same rate as alcohol — plus a $30 excise tax per ounce sold.

So, would that before enough to pay for universal pre-K? It depends on whether the state would offer the educational service to 3-year-olds as well as 4-year-olds — and what percentage of students would take advantage of the program.

The Hogan campaign cites a consultant’s report for the Maryland State Department of Education that says it would cost $1.36 billion to provide 80 percent of the state’s 3- and 4-year-olds with “high quality prekindergarten.”

Since Jealous’ website has so far offered few details about his plan, Hogan campaign officials say they were basing their understanding of it off his public comments, including remarks made to the Maryland teachers’ union in which he endorsed “universal pre-K and ideally universal 3-K.”

“Governor Hogan supports efforts to expand pre-K but what he doesn’t support is being dishonest with Marylanders about the cost,” said Hogan campaign spokesman Doug Mayer. “Unless Ben Jealous plans to have every man and women over the age of 18 stoned 24 hours a day, then he is going to need to raise other taxes.”

But the Jealous campaign says the Hogan camp is distorting the Democrat’s proposal. A Jealous campaign official said his plan offers pre-K for 4-year-olds only, not 3-year-olds.

Jealous also cites the Maryland State Department of Education consultant’s report, which said offering pre-K to 4-year-olds would cost the state between $139 million and $226 million a year — depending on whether 60 percent or 80 percent of students would be covered. Local counties would bear a similar cost, which wouldn’t be covered by the marijuana tax.

In an emailed statement Monday, the Jealous campaign said those numbers show Hogan’s staff is telling a “blatant lie.”

The Maryland Democratic Party held a conference call Monday with local reporters to provide support for Jealous’ proposal. On the call, party chairwoman Kathleen Matthews, state Sens. Bill Ferguson of Baltimore and Will Smith of Montgomery County, and Baltimore City Councilman Brandon Scott touted Jealous’ plan, including the potential for boosting student performance and lowering crime by cutting into the violent illegal drug trade.

“It’s really unfortunate the governor’s campaign is using a misleading number to try to scare people,” Ferguson said.

In between events in Western Maryland on Monday, Jealous said in a phone interview that Maryland Republicans aren’t offering new ideas and have become the “party of no.”

“The Republicans in Maryland are the party of no. No ideas and just no,” Jealous said. “We have put a very pragmatic plan on the table. We understand the people of Maryland deserve leadership that will solve their problems in real time.”

Mayer said Jealous is “moving the goal posts” on his proposal.

“In order to win the primary, Ben Jealous told voters that his plan was to cover all 3 and 4 year olds but now he is conceding that plan would be wildly unaffordable, so like a typical politician under pressure he is moving the goal posts,” he said.

He also argued that Jealous is pledging revenue from marijuana for multiple programs, including toward drug treatment in a speech Monday before the state Fraternal Order of Police conference in Garrett County.

No matter how many more kids are covered by expanding pre-K, the consultant’s report said society will see savings as the kids grow older, due to reduced criminal justice and child welfare costs.

Offering pre-K to all 3- and 4-year-olds would provide an estimated positive benefit of $3.7 billion a year to the state, the consultant said.

Four years ago, Democratic candidate Heather Mizeur first proposed legalizing and taxing marijuana to pay for universal pre-K. Mizeur estimated taxing the drug could generate $157 million a year using a different tax framework. She also proposed phasing-in universal pre-K.

luke.broadwater@baltsun.com

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