Yael T. Abouhalkah

Don’t burden Jackson County with a costly research tax

Updated: 2013-10-17T00:03:44Z

By YAEL T. ABOUHALKAH

The Kansas City Star

Two months ago, I began questioning a proposed 20-year, $800 million tax increase for medical research in Jackson County after civic leaders abruptly unveiled it.

To provide more information about the issue, officials with the three institutions that would get most of the money — Children’s Mercy Hospital ($20 million a year), St. Luke’s Hospital ($8 million) and the University of Missouri-Kansas City ($8 million) — set up interviews and visits for members of The Star’s Editorial Board.

We met with bright and dedicated scientists, saw million-dollar-plus lab rooms, and heard about the positive potential that translational research — aimed at finding new treatments and cures for diseases — has in this region.

After all that, my original questions about the tax and the answers received have turned into a final conclusion: I plan to vote “no” on Question 1, the half-cent sales tax increase on the Nov. 5 ballot.

The visits and much other research I have done reaffirmed for me that a public tax levied on one county is not the proper way to finance this endeavor, worthy as it is.

• Translational research is highly speculative, as even the National Institutes of Health concedes:

“The process of developing a new intervention is slow and expensive; the average length of time from discovery of a therapeutic target to approval of a new drug currently is about 14 years. The failure rate during this process exceeds 95 percent.”

But sales taxes usually are used for public amenities — a road, a park, zoo upgrades — that taxpayers actually will get. With this tax, there’s no guarantee of cures or a financial payback for Jackson Countians, despite the new burden on them.

This is not the appropriate way to use sales tax funds from one county in this region.

• Scientists such as Lynda Bonewald at UMKC and elsewhere told us they have many places to turn to get funding.

They include from the National Institutes of Health (especially through the two-year old National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences), national and local foundations, and rich philanthropists, all of which also are being tapped by medical researchers in other communities and hospitals around the country.

The downside: Scientists spend time fighting to get ever-tighter dollars, and good projects sometimes don’t get funded. But that’s life in the real world, where competition is fierce for public and private money. The medical research community isn’t immune when it comes to priority setting.

• Speaking of priorities, translational research is not a big enough one (yet) for Kansas City’s philanthropies.

I keep hearing from tax supporters that the region’s biggest foundations — the top five alone have more than $5 billion in assets — mostly have other goals to support. That stance can’t help inspire voters to endorse a publicly funded effort, especially when many other communities are using lots of private dollars to support this research.

• Translational research is not a big enough priority for Children’s Mercy or St. Luke’s hospitals.

Both have engaged in multi-hundred-million-dollar building and fundraising campaigns in recent years. But other medical fields — such as heart health at St. Luke’s — got the bulk of attention.

• Mayor Sly James and the mayors of the four other largest cities in Jackson County are neutral on the tax.

That’s not surprising; they have their own uses for tax revenues. But many residents will understand their mayors’ point of view that local sales taxes shouldn’t be used this way.

Tax supporters such as John Spertus at St. Luke’s Hospital make the fine argument that translational medicine is an important contribution to human health.

I pretty much agree — just not with this method of funding.

To reach Yael T. Abouhalkah, call 816-234-4887 or send email to abouhalkah@kcstar.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/YaelTAbouhalkah. He appears on “Ruckus” at 7 p.m. Thursday on KCPT, Channel 19.

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