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Jackson County voters will decide next Tuesday on tax for medical research

Updated: 2013-10-30T02:32:15Z

By MIKE HENDRICKS

The Kansas City Star

Next Tuesday Jackson County will decide whether to approve a sales tax like none other they’ve considered before.

If approved, Question 1 would boost the county sales tax by a half cent for 20 years, raising $800 million to underwrite medical research at two private hospitals and the health professional schools at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Together they would be partners in a Jackson County Institute for Translational Medicine.

Normally, sales taxes pay for things like public safety, public works and government services.

This one would 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.

One of the toughest chores tax proponents have had since announcing the project three months ago has been defining translational medicine to the general public.

Simply put, it’s the practical application of basic research. For example, the winners of this year’s 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 good use by producing new treatments and cures. Those Nobel winners’ findings laid the foundation for a drug called Herceptin, which is effective in the treatment of breast cancer.

The institute would divvy up the tax money and oversee how it was being spent on research. Half of the funds would go to Children’s Mercy, while St. Luke’s and UMKC would each get 20 percent. The institute’s board of directors would spend the remainder on “research-related economic development.”

Five separate committees or boards would oversee both the research and the finances.

Economic benefits

For more than a decade, the business community 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.

Backers of the institute for translational medicine say they looked to Jackson County taxpayers as a funding source only after failing to raise a sufficient bankroll from other sources.

Drug companies aren’t interested in gambling their own money on translational research these days, unless it might lead to the next big-selling drug. Backers also tried and failed to get charitable support for the project.

The Civic Council concluded that a regional tax wouldn’t fly, leaving a Jackson County sales tax as proponents’ last and best option.

Economic development is the goal. The money would go to hire nine top scientists within the first 10 years, pay the salaries of support staff and other costs. An estimated 237 jobs would be created that first decade with a total economic impact estimated at $607 million, according to the Civic Council.

On top of that are the construction jobs. Donald J. Hall and the Hall Family Foundation promise to build a $75 million home for the institute — but only if the tax is approved.

Jackson County government would also get 20 percent of the profits from the commercialization of any new drugs, devices or treatments.

Local residents would benefit from those potential discoveries before others, because the clinical trials would be done here.

Doubts raised

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 it’s highly unlikely the county will see any direct return on its investment in translational research, they say.

Jobs will be created, they say, but there is no guarantee that those jobs will go to Jackson County residents. Plus, they say, any tax increase would be better spent improving neighborhoods, providing basic services and creating jobs for those without them.

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 human stem cell research and “will not engage in such research in the future.”

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

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