After possible procedural errors in its adoption were pointed out, Grant County officials made the wise decision to look further into the marijuana tax ordinance passed recently.
Although the county may miss out on a small portion of the tax while the issues are resolved, ensuring the ordinance is passed properly will ensure the county is not on the hook to return tax money collected improperly — money that likely would have already been budgeted and spent.
The problem with the ordinance was not that it imposed a tax on marijuana. State law allows cities and counties to levy up to a 3 percent tax on pot products, which is what the county attempted to do.
The problem was that the ordinance did not refer the tax measure to voters for approval, as required by law.
As the Eagle covered the proceedings, the lack of a publicized referral to voters stood out, so we looked into it further.
We contacted county officials to get their thoughts, determined the ordinance was modeled after one in Columbia County and obtained copies of both ordinances. As we read through them, it was easy to see that the section that referred the measure to voters in Columbia County had been replaced in the Grant County version with a clause stating the ordinance was being passed as an emergency to be effective immediately.
It seemed like we were on the right track, so we continued to dig.
We contacted the state Department of Revenue, which all but confirmed what we believed: Local jurisdictions can only tax marijuana with approval from the voters. The only caveat was that the DOR communications operations manager said she was not sure how the law applied to emergency ordinances.
We felt fairly confident voter referral was required at that point, but we decided to see what we could find through a little legal research.
It didn’t take long before we found two more state laws that appear to prohibit this type of ordinance: One requires all tax-related county ordinances to be referred to voters, and the other prevents tax-related ordinances from being passed in a single meeting as an emergency.
With that information, it certainly appeared that this ordinance did not pass legal muster.
We reached out again to county officials, letting them know we believed the ordinance was passed improperly, and provided them all of our research. Grant County District Attorney Jim Carpenter, who is transitioning to also serve as county counsel, replied within a couple hours, stating the county would be looking into it to determine if it was passed properly and what the options would be moving forward.
Ultimately, we believe the county should pass an ordinance to enact the 3 percent tax upon voter approval. And when it does come before voters, we encourage everyone to approve the tax to provide another small stream of discretionary income to the county coffers.
But the county must ensure that it follows the correct procedures to prevent this tax windfall from becoming a liability to taxpayers.