Public needs answers today to three key questions about $800 million sales tax plan

08/19/2013 8:10 AM

08/20/2013 6:33 PM

Unless it’s a sham of a public hearing today, Jackson County legislators should be able to get the answers to at least three key questions regarding a proposed $800 million sales tax for medical research.

Lawmakers are holding a public hearing on a request to place a half-cent sales tax increase on the Nov. 5 ballot. It would raise $40 million annually for 20 years.

Children's Mercy Hospital would get half the money. St. Luke’s Hospital and the University of Missouri-Kansas City each would get $8 million a year, with the remaining $4 million going to other causes.

Supporters say the money could be used to hire top-flight — and very handsomely compensated — researchers along with their staffs. And millions of dollars worth of costly lab equipment could be purchased, too.

The Civic Council of Greater Kansas City is pressuring lawmakers to rush the proposal to the Nov. 5 ballot, meaning the legislature would have to endorse it by Aug. 26.

Here are three questions that deserve answers today:

• Will the public know how all of the $40 million a year is used?

Given that these are taxpayer funds, it would make sense that the recipients would have to provide public documentation of the salaries and benefits provided to employees hired with the tax receipts.

The public also should get a full report on what kind of lab equipment was bought and how much it cost. These labs can cost millions of dollars to equip.

• Given that Jackson County’s median household income is $46,874 annually, is a half-cent sales tax increase justified for a plan that would send much of the money to researchers who could be paid five, 10 or more times that much a year?

One other possibility is for the Legislature to reduce the size of the requested tax increase — say, to one-quarter cent — and put pressure on the philanthropic community and other funders to continue funneling more money into medical research.

• How will the public be assured that Children's Mercy and St. Luke’s hospitals along with UMKC use their sizable amount of new funds on additional medical research?

One of the worst things that could happen would be for the recipients to slice their current funding on medical research in an effort to free up those funds for other purposes, such as construction of new hospital wings or other expenses.

The tax, at least as it’s being pushed right now, is supposed to be

in addition

to current funding from foundations, companies and other sources.

The Jackson County Legislature owes it to taxpayers to know, after today, just how much information the Civic Council, Children’s Mercy Hospital and other supporters of this tax are going to provide the public in the future — if the plan makes it on the ballot in the first place and voters eventually approve it.

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