$800 million medical research plan differs from other sales tax uses

09/11/2013 8:04 PM

09/11/2013 8:04 PM

Sales taxes have paid for plenty of progress in recent years in the Kansas City area.

They include a better zoo, cleaner parks, smoother roads, a renovated Truman Sports Complex, new fire and police stations, treatment for drug users, new facilities for universities and more bus service.

Go down the list of sales taxes approved in cities and counties — for roads in Overland Park and Lenexa, for parks in Independence and Lee’s Summit, for public safety in Raytown — and those revenues by and large have been used by governments to build public infrastructure, pay public employees or provide services that directly benefit many local residents.

And therein lies a big challenge and potential problem for supporters of the $800 million medical research sales tax on the Nov. 5 ballot in Jackson County.

The proposed half-cent increase, expected to raise $40 million annually for 20 years, primarily would finance work done by the University of Missouri-Kansas City, the nonprofit Children’s Mercy Hospital and the not-for-profit St. Luke’s Hospital.

Most of the money would be used to hire well-paid researchers and other staff and to buy costly laboratory equipment — not to hire public employees or invest in public assets such as, say, parks.

The big question that continues to hover over the election is whether a local sales tax is the best or even proper way to help finance medical research, which is an extremely laudable goal.

Sales taxes in this region usually finance projects the private sector won’t, such as street repairs, public safety buildings and park upgrades. True, private money can supplement sales tax revenue, such as at the zoo and Truman Sports Complex. But both are still publicly owned assets.

While UMKC falls into that category, Children’s Mercy and St. Luke’s don’t. Plus, those latter two institutions especially count on heavy doses of private funding as well as federal tax dollars to help fund their research efforts.

Boosters of the November tax do note that any cures or advances discovered through that work eventually could help people who live in Jackson County (though of course that could include people on both sides of the state line).

Plus, if the tax-financed research leads to any net profits, that money would support programs designed to improve the health of Jackson County residents.

Still, both of those are hoped-for outcomes. That makes the medical research issue different from other tax elections, where concrete pledges can be made and kept regarding public assets.

Last year, for example, when Kansas City Mayor Sly James asked voters to endorse a half-cent sales tax increase, he discussed how many miles of roads it could pave. The Parks and Recreation Department pledged specific ways it would use its extra funds to improve public amenities such as community centers.

Finally, consider the Johnson County Education Research Triangle sales tax, approved in 2008. It financed the construction of three buildings (two for the University of Kansas, another for Kansas State University), and it helps both schools offer degree opportunities to more students. The tax, which raises about $15 million annually, essentially will help support the field of medical research.

However, there are big differences. Johnson County’s one-eighth-cent sales tax is just a quarter of the size of the proposed Jackson County tax. KU and Kansas State are public institutions. And Johnson County’s money mostly goes for buildings, operations and staff for public institutions — not directly for medical research.

Eventually, it will be up to Jackson Countians to decide whether they want to pay a unique sales tax for that purpose.

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