Can the medical research tax deliver on its promises?

08/28/2013 3:11 PM

08/28/2013 7:33 PM

The proposed $800 million sales tax increase for medical research in Jackson County is an unusual initiative that has quickly gained plenty of deserved attention.

In a crucial decision this week, the County Legislature voted 7-2 to place the half-cent sales tax on the Nov. 5 ballot. It could raise $40 million annually for 20 years.

I have questioned the plan since it was released this month, then rushed to the ballot in less than three weeks. The concerns include whether and precisely how these funds can be used to propel Kansas City into the next level of researching medical cures and improvements in health care treatment.

Officials at Children’s Mercy Hospital (scheduled to get $20 million a year from the tax); St. Luke’s Hospital ($8 million a year), and the University of Missouri-Kansas City ($8 million a year) have promised to help provide answers about the projected uses of tax revenues to the public in the coming weeks.

John Spertus, the Daniel Lauer/Missouri Endowed Chair and professor of medicine at UMKC and a cardiologist at St. Luke’s, recently summed up the passion of tax proponents when he invited me to come see what has been and can be done in medical research.

Accepted, and that visit plus a few others will be made soon.

Meanwhile, other developments that will shape the election are occurring.

• The Kansas City Regional Transit Alliance questioned moving ahead with the medical research tax while Jackson County’s commuter rail idea is still pending.

“This is not a time to redirect our community’s focus to another interest,” the alliance release said.

The comments, sent out by alliance chairman Kite Singleton, immediately drew agreement from some Blue Springs City Council members and lots of transit supporters on Twitter.

But Calvin Williford, chief of staff to County Executive Mike Sanders — who supports medical research and commuter rail — wrote to Singleton, “Let’s not pit one idea over another and engage in some form of ‘Oppression Olympics’ wherein each side claims their need is greater.”

On Wednesday, Singleton explained by email, “We are not campaigning against anything. We’re campaigning for Borderless Transit to build a Borderless Region.”

• The League of Women Voters in Kansas City/Jackson/Clay/Platte counties said it would oppose the tax.

In an interview, president Linda Vogel Smith said the league primarily opposed using a regressive sales tax to pay for the research. She said the league thought the medical groups could get money from other sources, and public revenue should be used for “local infrastructure needs.”

Jackson County legislator Bob Spence cited the same line of reasoning when he voted against placing the sales tax on the ballot. “I don’t think this is a business the county should be involved in,” he said.

• The Civic Council of Greater Kansas City and other supporters are getting ready to rev up the pro-tax campaign, estimated to cost more than $1 million.

One expected step occurred this week when the board of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce supported the issue, part of its Big 5 campaign to boost the region’s fortunes. Chairman Russ Welsh said the funds could improve health care for residents and “serve as a catalyst for economic development.”

Politically, campaign supporters still have to find out how much it will cost to get various groups to support the election.

Greg Graves, CEO of Burns & McDonnell, told me this week he had given money to the pro-tax campaign. Graves is among this region’s most respected civic leaders, many of whom support the tax.

But as even he agreed, there’s still plenty of time for a vigorous debate about the wisdom of an $800 million tax increase.

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