Editor’s note: Opinion Page Editor Julie Marshall is on vacation. Full editorial pages will resume next week.

In 2019, Boulder citizens passed the ballot measure entitled “Tax on Tobacco Vaping Products.” Now the City Council is considering extending this to marijuana vaping devices. The 2019 measure imposed a 40% tax on the retail sales price of electronic smoking devices and components thereof, with “devices” being defined in the Boulder Revised Code, Chapter 4.5. That chapter is titled “Sale of Tobacco Products.” And it defines “Electronic smoking device” as “any product containing or delivering nicotine intended for human consumption …”

During the discussions around that 2019 ballot measure, to the best of my memory and also based on feedback from others, there was no serious discussion about applying it to devices used for marijuana. And the people in the business seem to be in agreement that marijuana devices are not suitable for tobacco.

Steve PomeranceFor the Camera

So why is the Council considering extending this tax to marijuana devices? If they think this is a problem and that teenagers — or whoever — are using these marijuana devices for tobacco, why not just put an amendment on the ballot so that the citizens can decide if this is what they really want to do?

I also note that vaping devices can be homemade. So is this tax going to extend to all items that could possibly be used for this purpose? And how will the tax distinguish items that could be used for vaping from those that actually are used for vaping, and which are used for tobacco versus marijuana, etc.?

So it’s clear, I have no skin in this game; I don’t vape or smoke. But I do have a problem with manipulating a ballot measure to be something that wasn’t really intended. This reminds me of Charter Section 54, which protects citizen-initiated measures from such manipulation. It states that such a measure shall only be repealed by another citizen vote, and may only “be amended by two-thirds of the councilmembers present provided that the amendments do not alter or modify the basic intent of such ordinance …”

When I was on the Elections Working Group a few years ago, I proposed this “basic intent” language to protect citizen initiatives. I see now that it should have included all ballot measures. Then, assuming that anyone reads the Charter (which, based on recent history, is a stretch), such language would prevent this kind of abuse of discretion.

This brings me to the “Bedrooms Are For People” initiative, or, as I like to call it, “Bedrooms Are For Profit.” So it’s clear, I don’t fault the petitioners for bad intentions. But I do think that this initiative was very poorly thought through, assuming that the petitioners’ intent was to provide more affordable housing and more flexibility in the use of existing housing, both of which I support.

I discussed some issues with BAFP in my last op-ed, and I heard back from a number of people about its problems. Fundamentally, Boulder has an “inelastic” housing market. Prices and rents are escalating very fast, because Boulder is very attractive, and because rapid job growth and CU’s ever-increasing student numbers keep demand growing faster than supply. So adding more renters in existing single-family houses, or adding more bedrooms for even more renters, or then scraping off single-family houses and rebuilding the lots with apartments for yet even more renters, will not lower rental rates significantly. Demand is just growing too fast.

What BAFP will do is significantly increase profits from renting, simply because there will be more renters per housing unit. This will incent local (and national) investors to buy up the single-family housing and turn it into high occupancy rentals. Then housing prices will escalate even more rapidly, as will traffic, parking problems, noise, etc. And at a certain point, what made the neighborhood affordable and desirable for families will be gone.

I think the Council would do well to sit down with the petitioners (as it did with the “Direct Election of the Mayor” initiative petitioners) and some of BAFP’s critics, and work through needed changes to make BAFP something actually beneficial. For example, the initiative could be amended to require owners to live on-site, limit rental rates for occupancy over current limits, prevent properties from increasing the number of bedrooms beyond their 2021 levels, and require a yearly check-in with neighbors. Enforcement for serious code infractions should include loss of occupancy privileges. Then BAFP might provide something other than just more profit and impacts, and could even be a net benefit.

Steve Pomerance is a former member of the Boulder City Council.