Note: Opinions expressed in commentary on KCAW are those of the author, and are not necessarily shared by the station’s board, staff, or volunteers.
Where Did the Idea Come from to Tax MJ?
In 2016 the city’s Marijuana Advisory Committee (MAC) created a framework for the industry legalized by ballot measure in 2014. In their report to the assembly the MAC made several suggestions: where to locate growers and sellers, rates for utilities, and a special tax to be instituted after the industry got off the ground:
“On the topic of taxation, one of the points that prompted action was the concern that at some point in the future the State government may choose to prohibit the levying of any excise taxation on marijuana sales. As was the case with taxation of alcohol, it was possible that any excise taxation that predated any such action by the State would be “grandfathered” in. The committee does recommend the imposition of a 2% point-of-sale excise tax on all retail sales of marijuana in Sitka.” (MAC report, 2016)
Sitka’s marijuana industry is a model of entrepreneurial spirit – the businesses in town are operated by hard-working individuals who contribute to the community and provide a product that is safe and legal. Marijuana business owners in Sitka have shown themselves to be good neighbors, shrewd and capable business owners, and leaders in this nascent industry.
As a reminder, the Marijuana Advisory Committee members were long-term Sitkans who were committed to making this industry work in Sitka: Levi Albertson (chair), Andrew Hames (vice-chair), Joe D’Arienzo, Lindsay Evans, Pamela Ash, Jay Stelzenmuller, Darrell Windsor, Steven Eisenbeisz and Bob Potrzuski. The committee was created “to research issues and give recommendations to the Assembly regarding the legalization of its recreational use.” Meetings were publicly noticed and well-attended, according to the 2016 report.
While there is a black market for marijuana in Sitka, as in other communities, consumers cannot be sure when they purchase on the black market whether the product they’re buying is safe and what potency they’re purchasing. There is room to improve how we handle the illegal sales of marijuana in Sitka, but that should not stop the community from following through on the recommendation of the MAC in 2016 to institute a 2% point-of-sale tax when purchasing safe, regulated marijuana products from local businesses.
Sitka is not alone in creating taxes specific to marijuana products. While Anchorage and Fairbanks have no sales tax, they do tax marijuana products at 5%. Juneau’s marijuana tax and sales tax together equal 8% and Ketchikan’s come out to 11.5%. In fact, when this modest tax on marijuana products passes it will enable exactly what the MAC encouraged our community to dour community to do: Sitka will be able to evaluate the tax on alcohol products, which research shows are generally more harmful and costly to society than marijuana.
Currently, marijuana sales are taxed like all other purchases in town: 5% in the winter and 6% in the summer. When marijuana products were legalized in Alaska in 2014 many voters across the state expressed the desire to bring sales into the tax base of our communities. This ballot measure will remove the usual sales tax and replace it with a separate 6% tax specifically on marijuana products for 2023, then it will rise to 8% in 2024 and dedicate these funds to a student activity fund. This means 100% of the revenue generated from marijuana sales in Sitka will go to support student activities. Effectively, this change will increase the cost of these products to consumers by 1% for half of 2023 and by an additional 2% starting in 2024, meaning anticipated support to student activities around $300,000.
Why Do Student Activities Matter?
Sitka School District consistently scores higher than comparable districts across the state on the annual state exam given to every student in Alaska. Our district is known statewide not only for the fine athletes and drama/debate performers, but for the model teamwork and sportsmanship these students demonstrate at events across the state. The storied history of Sitka’s strong performance in activities is the direct result of the community’s investment in our kids: businesses and individuals chip in regularly to help fund equipment, travel, and scholarships for participation. Our winning formula includes community support, dedicated families, and the talents and abilities and hard work of our kids.
Studies show that students who engage in extracurricular activities perform better in school. School activities begin as early as elementary school with music and art, but at this age they are introduced to students through the regular school day as teachers work to “educate the whole child.” In middle and high school, many student activities occur outside the school day, with coaches who are hired to lead the activity. Sitka Native Education Program activities span through the entire district.
The variety of activities quickly expands in our middle school to include sports and music opportunities outside of school hours, with one third of students participating in after school options. At Sitka High School and Pacific High School the variety of activities grows dramatically: Drama, Debate and Forensics, sports, Mock Trial, and a variety of music opportunities. Partially because of the success of our embedded elementary programs, and partially because of Sitkans’ dedication to the success of our schools and students, many students continue to participate in activities in middle and high school. The Sitka Native Education Program Ghajaa Heen Dancers spans throughout the Sitka School District.
Currently each Sitka High student pays a fee to participate in activities as determined by coaches and the Activities Director of $300-400 per activity to cover uniforms, coaches, and some travel. Additionally students are often responsible for other travel fees to attend State qualified tournaments ranging from $200-400. Ironically, the better students perform in their activities the higher their expenses: students who travel to regional or state tournaments often pay upwards of a combined one thousand dollars to be a part of an activity. At Sitka High, 79% of kids participated in school activities, 63% of students participated in sports last year with over half of those students participating in multiple activities. Students participating in more than one activity, and families with more than one child especially have to weigh how many activities they can afford.
Families of students in activities foot these bills, along with providing shoes, instruments, and food during travel and other expenses out of pocket and through fundraising campaigns. There is incredible support from Sitka’s business community to assist teams with travel expenses, from outright donations to calendar sponsorship and other fundraisers. Sitka has always stepped up for our students and supported their efforts to the tune of nearly $200,000 in funds raised annually. Yet it is important to recognize the cost to students and families of time and often, again, personal resources, to fundraise. These fundraisers are often embedded in community life, and are valuable in their own way, but they do not happen without a great deal of effort. The need for fundraising is unlikely to go away; however, reducing fees and expenses will open activities and all the benefits that come with activities to more students.
The Sitka School District has committed to maintaining their activities funding, which includes the salary of the Activities Director. Other ideas district leadership has proposed include capping student fees at $300 annually, opening the door to participation in as many activities as students would like. Reducing the expense for students who travel to regional or state tournaments is being discussed, as well as providing funds for meal support during travel for qualified students. In the absence of ferries the cost of travel has risen dramatically, and increasing the amount of money available for student travel will help offset this expense for families.
A yes vote on the Marijuana Tax Ballot Measure will fulfill a directive of Sitka’s own Marijuana Advisory Committee while committing 100% of the revenues from the sale of safe and legal products to student activities. This ordinance is a common sense way to continue Sitka’s tradition of supporting our kids.