Plenty of questions face medical research sales tax issue in Jackson County

08/14/2013 1:34 PM

08/14/2013 6:48 PM

People have lots of questions about the proposed $800 million, 20-year sales tax increase in Jackson County.

That’s understandable. This plan was put together in private by local civic leaders and the people who could benefit from it at Children’s Mercy Hospital, St. Luke’s Hospital and the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Just after unveiling the plan, supporters are trying to rush it to the November ballot. They are seeking $40 million a year from a new half-cent sales tax. Notably, that could boost the regular sales tax rate in Kansas City south of the river to 8.85 percent, the highest of any major local city.

Here’s an early look at a few crucial angles to this important issue. Yes, there are more questions than answers so far.

• What will the tax revenue buy?

Medical research, and that could be a problem in getting voter approval.

Most sales tax revenues in this region are used for


assets — to renovate the Truman Sports Complex, improve the zoo, build new fire and police stations, pave more streets and enhance bus service.

But medical research sounds like more of a


venture, something the local philanthropic community has been doing for years with investments reaching into the tens of millions of dollars.

While federal and state funds have been used in Missouri, Kansas and elsewhere to boost medical research, should taxpayers in one county funnel so much of their money into this venture?

What other priorities could these public monies be used for instead? Better transit, such as commuter rail or longer streetcar lines? A stronger pre-kindergarten educational program? Other public amenities?

• What will the medical research accomplish?

This is the squishiest part of the proposal.

Promoters say the tax has the potential to help finance life-saving cures and other medical innovations leading to improved care for patients. Those are positive outcomes, no doubt about it, especially if they make the Kansas City area a national leader in this field of research.

Still where is the proof that, say, Children’s Mercy Hospital — which is slated to get $20 million a year from this tax — can deliver some of these potential cures?

Because that hospital reportedly already spends millions a year on medical research, what benefits to patients — and new streams of revenues — has the research created?

Children’s Mercy and St. Luke’s hospitals, along with UMKC, need to provide more concrete examples of past success to show that the $800 million of taxpayer money would be well spent in the future.

• What’s the campaign pitch, and can the higher tax pass?

The Kansas City Zoo used “One Zoo for All” in convincing more than 60 percent of Jackson County voters in 2011 to approve a one-eighth-cent sales tax for zoo upgrades.

The Chiefs and Royals used “Save Our Stadiums” in persuading just over 50 percent of county voters in 2006 to endorse a three-eighths-cent sales tax to renovate the sports complex.

So Jackson Countians haven’t been shy about embracing higher sales taxes.

Civic leaders are still putting together their $1 million-plus ad campaign for the medical research tax, but here’s one option: “Cures for Kids.”

It’s simple like past ones. It could tug at voters’ heartstrings and be used with photos of children who need someone to step forward to help save their lives.

Overdramatic? Maybe. But keep in mind that almost everything will be fair game in the race to get $800 million in taxpayer funds.


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