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Jackson County Legislature puts medical research tax on Nov. 5 ballot

Updated: 2013-08-27T04:32:35Z

By MIKE HENDRICKS

The Kansas City Star

Jackson County voters will decide Nov. 5 whether to approve a half-cent sales tax funding medical research at two area hospitals and the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

If approved, the tax would be collected for 20 years, raising roughly $40 million annually in current dollars to fund a new Jackson County Institute for Translational Medicine.

County legislators voted Monday along party lines, 7-2, to put the measure on the ballot at the urging of civic leaders and the three institutions that would share the bulk of those tax proceeds.

Children’s Mercy Hospital would get half the money raised, minus the cost of collecting the tax and conducting annual audits.

St. Luke’s Hospital and the University of Missouri-Kansas City would each get nearly 20 percent, or roughly $8 million each per year. The remaining 10 percent would go “to further the economic development initiatives of the institute,” such as funding training programs at the Metropolitan Community Colleges.

Supporters of the tax say the idea is to build on the medical research capabilities of the three main beneficiaries. Each would hire top scientists and furnish them with laboratories, equipment and support staff. The goal is to develop cures, treatments and procedures that would improve health care and spur business development.

Supporters say that by the 10th year that the tax is collected, it would lead to the hiring of nine “world-class investigators” and more than 230 jobs. They say direct and indirect benefits over the first decade would total $600 million.

Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders said Kansas City could become internationally known as a center for medical research. “Something like this has an enormous potential for return” on the investment, said Sanders, a Democrat.

All seven Democrats on the legislature supported putting the measure on the fall ballot, saying it holds great promise for improving health care and helping the local economy.

But Republican Bob Spence of Lee’s Summit said that, even as a cancer survivor who knows the value of medical research, he questioned whether medical research should be a function of county government.

“I’ve never had a vote since I’ve sat on this body where I’ve had so much consternation,” he said.

Joining Spence in voting “no” was the only other Republican on the county legislature, Chairman Greg Grounds. Grounds gave two reasons for his vote, both having to do with the timing of the election. As it stands, the medical research tax would be the only countywide issue on the ballot.

Grounds said that when he agreed to sponsor the ordinance putting the tax on the ballot, he thought supporters of the tax would pay the $1 million cost to hold what amounts to a special election.

“I walked away thinking we’re not out a dime,” he said.

But that’s not how it will be. If the measure passes, tax collections would pay for the election. If the ballot measure fails, general county tax dollars would cover the cost.

Sanders and other supporters in the legislature approved this year’s budget with $800,000 set aside for a fall election. But Grounds said that was for a county-initiated 1 cent sales tax to fund a commuter rail system. When that proposal was postponed, those tax dollars should have been saved rather than spent on something else, Grounds said.

“A few years ago, we were sweating blood over $100,000,” said Grounds, who added that the election should be put off until spring, when more issues would be on the ballot.

Grounds also said the research tax might put the squeeze on a half-cent sales tax for parks that is on the November ballot in Blue Springs. Before he was elected to the County Legislature, Grounds was mayor of Blue Springs.

If approved, the medical research tax would raise $800 million, not accounting for inflation, until it expires in 2034.

Collections for the research tax would not be commingled with other county funds, but rather would go into a special account administered by the institute’s board of directors. One county legislator would be a voting member of the board.

Four other committees would oversee the tax. Two would keep watch over the dollars spent, one required by state statute and the other controlled by the county.

A scientific advisory board would be created to monitor research activity. A community advisory board would act as an advocate for the institute.

In announcing their plans less than three weeks ago, advocates said that surveys showed voter support for a tax to fund medical research.

How the measure does on Election Day is, however, anyone’s guess. A spokesman for the campaign committee, the Committee for Research, Treatment and Cures, said more than $1 million will be spent to convince voters to pass the tax. According to filings with the Missouri Ethics Commission, about $110,000 has been raised so far.

All but $10,000 of that is from the Civic Council of Greater Kansas City. CEOs from the largest companies in the Kansas City area comprise the council.

So far, opposition to the tax has been muted, but commercials urging a “no” vote began appearing last week on local TV.

The group sponsoring the ads is the Citizens for Responsible Research, which so far is funded by one man, Brad Bradshaw, a lawyer and physician from Springfield, Mo.

Bradshaw said he opposes the tax because it wouldn’t collect enough money to make much of an impact on curing diseases such as cancer. Bradshaw has been working on a proposal for a statewide medical research tax that he had hoped to put on the ballot in 2016.

In a phone interview after the legislature’s vote, Bradshaw promised to be a thorn in the side of supporters of the Jackson County tax by running TV spots through Election Day.

“They’re not going to have a cakewalk,” he said. “It’s a bad tax.”

The Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce on Monday endorsed the proposed tax. The Jackson County Taxpayers Association opposes the ballot measure, said Bob Gough, the group’s executive director.

To reach Mike Hendricks, call 816-234-4738 or send email to mhendricks@kcstar.com.

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