Sales tax for medical research soundly rejected in Jackson County

Becky Wymore votes on Tuesday, Nov. 5, with her sons Gabe, 3, and Nolan, 2, at Olive Branch Missionary Baptist Church at 59th and Harrison streets in Kansas City.
Becky Wymore votes on Tuesday, Nov. 5, with her sons Gabe, 3, and Nolan, 2, at Olive Branch Missionary Baptist Church at 59th and Harrison streets in Kansas City. The Kansas City Star

Presented Tuesday with a bold proposal to boost medical research with $800 million in taxpayer funds, Jackson County voters said no.


By a greater than 5-to-1 ratio, the county’s voters rejected the half-cent, 20-year sales tax to fund “translational” research at two private hospitals and the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

In complete unofficial returns, 12,066 voters supported the tax, roughly 16 percent of those casting ballots, while 64,486, or 84 percent, opposed it.

The early returns were so decisive that supporters conceded defeat long before the final votes were announced.

“It was an effort very much worth fighting,” a somber Russ Welsh, past chairman of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce, told a crowd of about 50 supporters gathered at Union Station.

Although voters did not agree with the funding mechanism, he and others said the campaign had been successful in educating the public about the promises of translational research.

Tax opponents were jubilant. Gathered at a small midtown Kansas City bar, they cheered as the overwhelming early returns were read aloud.

“I’m in favor of research. This was just a bad way to go about it,” said Springfield lawyer Brad Bradshaw, who poured roughly $250,000 into the campaign against the proposal.

Supporters of the tax had worried about slipping public support for weeks. Several prominent political groups opposed the tax, as did editorials in The Kansas City Star.

Still, the defeat was a sobering blow for many area civic and business leaders, who for several years have quietly promoted an institute to conduct the kind of medical research that might result in disease cures and profitable new drugs.

In August, with little advance public discussion, the Civic Council of Greater Kansas City urged Jackson County lawmakers to put the tax on the November ballot. The tax, the group said, would help build a Jackson County Institute for Translational Medicine that would boost the local economy and burnish the area’s reputation as a leader in the life sciences.

Yet after spending $2 million on their campaign, proponents of Question 1 came up far short. A last-minute, six-figure donation went uncollected, because campaign operatives recognized the futility of additional spending in the campaign’s closing days.

It was a dramatic reversal.

Private polling in June indicated substantial support for the concept of a county tax to support medical research. But more than two months of advertising and direct mail from the opposition, proponents said, turned that lead into a stunning deficit.

“In part there was a resistance to taxes,” said Civic Council member Robert Kipp. “In part there was a subterranean, organized opposition of people with other agendas.”

Outspent 4-to-1, opponents called the outcome a victory for average taxpayers. Although acknowledging that medical research is a worthy cause, they said a countywide sales tax was the wrong way to go about funding it.

“You’re asking Jackson County for the largest and lengthiest tax increase in its history for something (voters) will see no return on,” said Marcus Leach, a consultant and spokesman for Citizens for Responsible Research, a group that opposed the tax.

The translational research tax was to have raised $40 million annually to recruit top scientists and their cutting-edge research programs to participating institutions. Some $20 million was destined for new research programs at Children’s Mercy Hospital, with UMKC and St. Luke’s Health System receiving $8 million each.

The remainder, about $4 million, was earmarked for related economic development efforts, such as research training programs at Metropolitan Community Colleges.

The other partner in the institute was the Kansas City Area Life Sciences Institute, which would not have been a direct beneficiary of the tax.

Business leaders said they failed in finding other ways to fund an institute dedicated to translational medicine. A county sales tax was seen as a last resort when backers were unable to get financial backing from the federal government, private business and charitable foundations.

“We do not have a Plan B,” Wayne Carter, president and chief executive of the Kansas City Area Life Sciences Institute, said at a press event the day before the election.

“Plan B,’’ said physician John Spertus, a top researcher at St. Luke’s, “is the same, incremental program we’ve had over the last 20 years.”

Spertus, Carter and other proponents had called the tax a potential “game changer” for medical research efforts in the area. Instead of continuing to depend almost solely on competitive grants to fund medical research, the Institute for Translational Medicine would have had a dependable source of funds with the sales tax.

Carter estimated that, by year 10, those tax dollars would have leveraged an additional $30 million a year in grant money.

Nine top scientists were to be hired in the first decade. The tax would have paid the salaries of support staff, laboratory supplies and other costs. An estimated 237 jobs would have been created, they said, with a total economic impact estimated at $607 million.

None of the tax money was to pay for bricks and mortar. But during the campaign, Donald J. Hall and the Hall Family Foundation promised to build a $75 million home for the institute on Hospital Hill — but only if the tax were approved.

Another promised benefit was that Jackson County government would get 20 percent of the profits from the commercialization of any new drugs, devices or treatments the institute produced.

But opponents stressed the speculative nature of the proposal. There were no guarantees that any cures or treatments would result from the research.

And though the tax would certainly create jobs, the number of jobs was miniscule, opponents said, considering the amount of money that the tax would bring in.

Proponents had not expected opposition from the likes of Bradshaw, a wealthy foe willing to spend freely because he worried that a Jackson County tax would undermine his own plan for a statewide tax to fund medical research.

He began running commercials even before the measure was put on the ballot. Another surprise was the arrival on the scene of another group called Citizens for Fairness, which raised about $200,000. The primary source of the funds was unclear.

The Committee to Stop a Bad Cure, organized by substitute teacher and former Star reporter and assistant city editor Jim Fitzpatrick, also opposed the measure, spending more than $8,000 on ads and buttons.

“I’m thrilled,” Fitzpatrick said as the results rolled in.

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