Never have Jackson County voters considered anything like this.
By MIKE HENDRICKS
The Kansas City Star
If approved, the half-cent sales tax proposal on the Nov. 5 ballot would raise $800 million over 20 years not for parks, public safety or other projects normally funded with sales taxes.
Instead, the tax would underwrite medical research at two private hospitals and the health professional schools at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, all collaborating under a new umbrella organization: the Jackson County Institute for Translational Medicine.
The last time county residents were asked to approve a tax approaching this amount was in 2006. That was the three-eighths cent sales tax to help pay for $575 million in improvements at Arrowhead and Kauffman stadiums.
It passed handily. One quarter of the electorate cast ballots, partly because it was easy to understand the project and the stakes were high. The stadiums were then 30-plus years old and in need of renovation. If the fixes werent made, the Royals and Chiefs might leave town.
This time, its not so simple. Voters arent being asked to approve something they can see or touch.
Theyre being asked to pay the salaries and expenses of medical researchers looking for cures and treatments with the hope that those scientists will improve human health and boost the local economy.
Perhaps because of its novelty and less buildup stadium upgrades had been talked about for years Question 1 hasnt inspired nearly as much public discussion. As a result of that and the fact that its the only thing on the countywide ballot, a low turnout is expected.
We would like to see at least a 20 to 25 percent turnout but 10 to 15 is probably correct, unfortunately, said Bob Nichols Jr., director of the Jackson County Election Board.
Turnout could be so low, proponents believe, that the result could depend on the get-out-the-vote efforts directed at the thousands of employees at UMKC and the Childrens Mercy and St. Lukes hospitals, which would share the nearly $40 million the tax would raise annually.
The vote of the employees at the three institutions, we think, will be the margin of victory, said Steve Glorioso, a spokesman for the pro-tax Committee for Research, Treatment and Cures.
Opponents acknowledge that they face a stiff challenge motivating their voters to show up. The Committee for Research, Treatment and Cures has raised $1.7 million to promote the tax so far, mostly from six-figure donations, to pay for TV commercials and other campaign costs.
All the same, tax opponents are confident that, despite being outspent four to one, they can stir up enough no votes to turn the tide with their own ads and get-out-the-vote effort.
It doesnt cost as much to tell the truth and convince voters to reject a bad idea, said Brad Bradshaw, a Springfield-based lawyer with an office in Kansas City whos helping bankroll the opposition.
Here are points of the proposals background and some of the arguments both sides are making for and against the tax.
What is translational medicine?
One of the toughest chores tax proponents have had since announcing the project three months ago has been defining translational medicine to the public. Translational what?
Its the practical application of basic research. For example, the winners of this years Nobel Prize in medicine won for basic research that discovered how the transport system inside cells is organized and how it delivers molecules within cells to the right place at the right time.
Translational medicine puts that sort of knowledge to use by producing new treatments and cures.
Among the practical applications of the cell transport research was the development of the drug Herceptin, which is effective in the treatment of breast cancer.
What exactly would the Jackson County Institute for Translational Medicine do?
The institute would divvy up the tax money and oversee how it was being spent on research. Half of the funds raised each year would go to Childrens Mercy, while St. Lukes and UMKC would each get 20 percent. The institutes board of directors would spend the remainder on research-related economic development, such as training programs at the Metropolitan Community Colleges.
The proposed tax would be a significant boost to the research budgets of all three institutions.
Childrens Mercy reported receiving $8.4 million in research dollars in 2012, mostly from the federal government. A half-cent county sales tax would boost that by $20 million a year for the next two decades.
St. Lukes got close to $10 million for research from external sources in 2012. The county tax would kick it up a notch by about $8 million annually.
Likewise, UMKCs four health professional schools would get an $8 million boost from the tax. During 2012, those schools, along with the School of Biological Sciences and Department of Psychology, received $18 million to $20 million in research dollars, a university spokesman said.
Who would see to it that the money was spent the way its supposed to be?
Five separate committees or boards would oversee both the research and the finances. A member of the Jackson County Legislature would sit on the board of directors and a five-member oversight board would be appointed by the county executive.
Where did this idea come from?
For more than a decade, the business community, led by the Civic Council of Greater Kansas City, has been promoting the notion that the area economy would benefit by furthering life sciences research. This proposal is just one aspect of that strategy. It got a boost in 2011, when the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce listed the creation of an institute of translational medicine among its Big 5 things it hoped to accomplish to better the community.
The council, a group of the areas top CEOs, asked to have the tax measure placed on the ballot.
Why a tax? Why not look to the pharmaceutical industry or charitable foundations?
Backers of the institute for translational medicine looked to Jackson County taxpayers as a funding source after failing to raise a sufficient bankroll from other sources.
The big drug companies are less interested in gambling their own money on translational research these days, unless it might lead to the next billion-dollar drug.
Drug companies prefer, instead, to license others discoveries.
Competition for limited federal government research funds is fierce and could not be depended upon as a sustainable source of funds.
Backers also tried to get charitable support. But the areas largest foundations already have their dollars committed to other causes and were unwilling to make a big commitment to medical research, council board member Bill Berkley told The Kansas City Star editorial board.
Why are only Jackson County voters being asked to approve the tax? Why wasnt a regional funding mechanism considered?
The council concluded that a regional tax wouldnt fly.
Only one regional tax has ever passed in the areas history, that being the 1996 bi-state tax to renovate Union Station.
Had another bi-state tax been proposed for this project, it would have had trouble getting support in Johnson County. Voters there approved a much smaller tax in 2008 to support its research triangle. Only a small percentage of those funds pays for actual research, but the perception of double taxation would have undermined a proposed regional tax for translational medicine.
The Jackson County sales tax was seen as their last and best option.
Besides the council and the chamber, who supports the tax measure?
Proponents include a long list of organizations, including the Latino Civic Engagement Collaborative, Labor-Management Council of Greater Kansas, Downtown Council, Committee for County Progress and International Association of Fire Fighters Local 42.
What groups oppose it?
They include the League of Women Voters, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Greater Kansas City Restaurant Association, Roman Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Missouri Right to Life, the Citizens Association and Freedom Inc.
Whos staying neutral?
Kansas City Mayor Sly James, as well as the mayors of Lees Summit, Blue Springs and Raytown.
How do supporters say the tax would benefit the community?
More jobs and better health care, they say.
The money would go to hire nine top scientists, called principal investigators, within the first 10 years. Those investigators would bring with them their research projects, and possibly some of their affiliated scientists and staffers, as well as any grant funding they might already have.
Tax money also would pay for their supplies and provide job opportunities. An estimated 237 jobs, some of them high-paying, would be created that first decade with a total economic effect estimated at $607 million, according to the Civic Council.
Backers say the sales tax money would be a stable source of funding and therefore would inspire outside investment in the research by the National Institutes of Health and other funders.
NIH actually looks for leverage opportunities, said Wayne Carter, president of Kansas City Area Life Sciences Institute, which would be a partner with UMKC and the hospitals in the Jackson County institute.
On top of that are the construction jobs and economic benefits derived from the $75 million building that Donald J. Hall and the Hall Family Foundation promised they would construct to house the institute but only if the tax is approved.
Jackson County government also would get 20 percent of the profits from the commercialization of any new drugs, devices or treatments produced by the institute.
Patients at Childrens Mercy and St. Lukes, in particular, would benefit from those potential discoveries before others outside this area because the clinical trials would be done here.
What do opponents say?
Opponents stress that there are no guarantees that any cures or treatments would result from the research and that a sales tax to support medical research is a big departure from the core responsibilities of county government.
They cite the National Institutes of Health, which says it takes 14 years on average for a new drug to be approved and such research fails 95 percent of the time.
So its highly unlikely the county would see any direct return on its investment in translational research.
Jobs will be created, they say, but there is no guarantee that those jobs will go to Jackson County residents.
Freedom Inc. and others say any tax increase would be better spent improving neighborhoods, providing basic services and creating jobs for those who have none.
Opponents say institute backers need to try harder to get grants and private investment and shouldnt rely on the taxpayers of a single county to foot the bill.
Opponents also doubt the $40 million a year the tax would raise would really be the game changer that proponents make it out to be because hundreds of millions of dollars already are being spent on medical research in the Kansas City area.
And finally, groups opposing abortion say there is nothing in the ballot language to prohibit research that would destroy human embryos.
The partners in the proposed institute say they do not do embryonic stem cell research and will not engage in such research in the future.