Yael T. Abouhalkah

Crushing defeat of research tax is victory for KC’s common sense

Updated: 2013-11-06T03:07:22Z

The crushing defeat of the medical research tax on Tuesday is a common-sense victory for the proper way to use public funds in Kansas City.

First things first: As so many people have correctly noted, medical research is a high priority for this country. Other communities already are heavily involved in it. Hospitals, foundations and others in the Kansas City region should place a greater emphasis on medical research — but not financed with a tax on one county’s voters.

Here are some of the excellent reasons that Jackson County voters decisively rejected the half-cent sales tax increase that would have raised $800 million over 20 years.

• The tax was poorly designed.

I still find it difficult to believe that some smart businessmen, businesswomen and other leaders at the Civic Council of Greater Kansas City thought proposing a half-cent sales tax increase was a good idea and one that voters would approve for medical research, mostly by two private institutions — Children’s Mercy and St. Luke’s hospitals. Even in prosperous Johnson County, the community decided to back only an eighth-cent sales tax, and that was for mostly public purposes by public universities.

• The tax was poorly promoted, despite its $2 million advertising war chest.

The TV and print campaigns were targeted at people’s emotions and heartstrings, something that didn’t work well with an $800 million request. The ads also did not do a good job explaining exactly how the money would be used. “Your vote can save our lives” was particularly over the top. (Yes, so was the “A robbery is in progress” ad that opponents used.) Many of the mailers from tax promoters insulted voters by failing to even note that a “tax” would be used to raise the funds.

• Supporters poorly explained translational medical research.

Agreed, it’s difficult to quickly explain how certain types of research can be “translated” into breakthroughs that lead to cures, better medical devices and ways of saving money. But I went on several field trips to Children’s Mercy Hospital, the University of Missouri-Kansas City and St. Luke’s Hospital. And even given time, backers of the tax couldn’t always give compelling reasons for supporting translational research. After each visit, I came away convinced that spending large amounts of local public tax dollars from one county was not the proper way to finance this kind of speculative research, especially given the small number of breakthroughs that were discussed during those field trips.

• Many outside factors weighed down efforts to pass the tax.

These included the use of public funds by private institutions; the high salaries in the medical field; the costs of building expansion programs — rather than investments in translational research — by St. Luke’s and Children’s Mercy hospitals; and the concern — one I did not agree with, by the way — that many people hired with the tax would live in Johnson County.

• Opponents had good, basic reasons to oppose the tax.

This was not the normal bunch of anti-tax people or organizations. Freedom Inc. and the Citizens Association, to take two better-known opponents, did not like the regressive nature of the sales tax being levied in the second poorest county in the region. They also properly asked questions about how the money would be used to really help people in this community, and not just the general public around the nation. I found it interesting that along the way it was difficult to find very many people who would publicly promote the tax. That included the mayors of the five largest cities in Jackson County, starting with Kansas City Mayor Sly James. All said they were neutral on it, which basically meant all five opposed it.

• Finally, the defeat of the sales tax saves that kind of revenue for better public causes.

James and other mayors will be free to promote the use of sales taxes for public assets in their cities, such as the large backlog of infrastructure improvements needed in Kansas City.

Jackson County will have a little more room to ask for a tax increase to finance a transit upgrade, if one can be worked out with local railroads.

During the past few months a lot of people on both sides of this question said translational research is a good thing for this region.

While voters didn’t agree to a large tax increase to help finance this medical research, the civic community now can focus on finding other ways to fund it — as has been done in dozens of other cities throughout the nation for years.

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