Crucial questions surround $800 million medical research tax increase

08/08/2013 12:27 AM

08/08/2013 12:27 AM

In a bold but questionable proposal put together behind the scenes this summer, Kansas City’s civic community is announcing today

that it wants Jackson County taxpayers to kick in an extra $800 million over the next 20 years for ....

Well, it’s not exactly clear what those public funds really would buy.

As a result, civic leaders have their work cut out for them if their requested half-cent sales tax increase, raising about $40 million a year, appears on the November ballot.

The tax bid — which civic leaders and Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders want to rush to the ballot in the next 18 days — has one compelling side to it and one worrisome side.

• Children’s Mercy Hospital, St. Luke’s Hospital and the University of Missouri-Kansas City could use much of these funds to do incredibly important medical research leading to cures for or advances in treating some diseases.

The Kansas City area thus could carve out a special place nationally in the highly visible medical research field. The funds could create high-paying jobs and lead to the construction of modern laboratories.

This is the part that appeals to me and many other Kansas City boosters, even with the hefty price tag.

Certainly the “we can provide medical cures” aspect would be one of the highlights of the civic community’s planned $1 million-plus media campaign this fall on behalf of the tax.

• The civic leaders’ request is far afield from how most tax funds are used locally. And it begs the question of why the private sector can’t do more in the field of medical research.

Sales taxes especially have been used for capital improvements — new fire stations, new police facilities, new roads, a better Kansas City Zoo, etc. Generally, local taxes are used to provide key public assets (think, Sprint Center) or crucial public services that the local government specializes in providing providing, such as public safety and public parks.

But private foundations and corporations already finance plenty of medical research in the Kansas City area, including at Children’s Mercy Hospital and the other entities that want to receive Jackson County tax revenues.

And even a somewhat similar tax for biosciences — an eighth-cent sales tax approved by Johnson County voters several years ago — is mostly being used used for different purposes: building facilities for the University of Kansas and Kansas State in the county.

Is the proposed Jackson County medical research tax really a top public priority for the Kansas City region, requiring a ton of taxpayer funds? Why can’t the civic community — as has been done elsewhere where medical research is important — contribute more private dollars for the cause?

The civic community’s plan would raise the total sales tax in Kansas City south of the river to 8.85 percent, which would be the highest of all major cities in the metro area.

Finally, even with all the funds going to research, it’s not clear that the money would succeed in finding the kinds of cures that serve ordinary Jackson Countians.

Again, it’s going to be up to civic leaders in the coming weeks to provide clear answers on how public monies would be spent and exactly how the public would benefit.

Given the tremendous amount of money at stake, Jackson County voters could have an incredibly important decision to make this November about the future of medical research in this region.

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