Research tax Q&A: Look elsewhere for models

10/30/2013 12:16 PM

11/05/2013 6:59 PM

In five days Jackson County voters will decide the fate of one of the largest-ever local tax increase requests.

The half-cent sales tax on the ballot would last 20 years and raise $800 million, with most spent on medical research by Children’s Mercy and St. Luke’s hospitals plus the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Opponents, including me, object largely because the tax would be collected in only one county and would not be spent on public assets, as most sales taxes are.

Here are last-minute questions and answers on topics not addressed in previous columns on this crucial issue:

How can the tax increase win?

Supporters will spend close to a staggering $2 million on TV and mass-mailing ad campaigns aimed at persuading “yes” voters to go to the polls.

Backers also hope employees at the three institutions that would gain the most tax funds will vote for it. An internal email from Children’s Mercy noted that “voluntary informational meetings” had been held in recent weeks about the wonders of research that could be done there.

And if “no” voters stay home — because they are not excited about the cause — supporters have a better chance at victory.

How can the tax increase lose?

A wealthy lawyer/physician — Brad Bradshaw — is spending at least several hundred thousand dollars for ads against the tax. Plus, a surprisingly large contingent of organized opponents has emerged, including Freedom Inc. and the Citizens Association.

Plus, the depth of anti-tax feelings from many “no” voters could spur more to go to the polls even on a single-issue election.

Do civic leaders sometimes chided for not boldly pushing this region forward deserve a pat on the back for this initiative?

No. They worked on this in secret for months. They didn’t involve many publicly elected officials in discussions about who would get public funds and why. And they over-reached with their request for such a large tax increase.

True, the rush to the ballot partly occurred because another county initiative — a tax for commuter rail — was sidelined in mid-year. However, that doesn’t excuse the lack of outreach by the civic community in putting together its final plan.

In addition, some key supporters have tried to sell the tax as a job creator in a county that’s been losing jobs. But the funds actually would not create a large number of new jobs, given the high salaries required to lure top researchers and the costly equipment needed for their work.

How do other children’s hospitals finance translational research?

Seattle Children’s Hospital has a Center for Clinical and Translational Research, not funded by a local tax. The Clinical and Translational Study Unit at Boston Children’s Hospital is not funded by a local tax. Ditto for the Pediatric Clinical and Translational Research Center at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh and the Clinical Translational Research Center at Cincinnati Children’s hospital.

Instead, these hospitals and many others mostly rely on combinations of funding from the National Institutes of Health and local philanthropists and foundations — just like the three institutions asking for Jackson County’s funds could do.

Would defeat of the tax increase doom translational research in this region?

No. It’s already being done on the Kansas side, led by Frontiers: The Heartland Institute for Clinical Translational Research. And UMKC as well as Children’s and St. Luke’s hospitals are network institutions.

While pro-tax officials in Jackson County point out their proposal is far more extensive than the Kansas initiative, it’s clear that translational research has established a foothold in this region.

An $800 million tax increase should be decided by as many people as possible. Whether it’s thumbs up or down on this issue, vote Tuesday.

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