Jackson County sales tax to create Institute for Translational Research and Medicine goes to voters

rpulley@lsjournal.comAugust 28, 2013 

Jackson County legislators decided this week to put a half-cent sales tax on the Nov. 5 ballot, to support medical research.

In a 7-2 vote Monday, with Lee’s Summit’s Bob Spence and Blue Springs Greg Grounds voting no, the legislature agreed to the election after asking for a few changes in the plan offered by Kansas City civic leaders.

The tax would raise about $40 million annually to finance “translational” research at several area hospitals.

Translational research refers to physicians taking basic research and developing it in a medical setting to create devices or drugs to heal patients.

Spence, a cancer survivor, said his decision was difficult.

“I’ve never had a vote that caused me so much consternation,” said Spence, who represents the 6th District. “I know how important research is to cancer survivors.”

But he said an additional half-cent tax is too much to ask of voters.

He said they already pay enough in taxes for direct county services and the tax could take resources from cities in the county.

“We have all we can afford to take care of bad guys, for the health money we pay for and parks,” Spence said.

Grounds wanted to put off the election to a future date when more issues would be on the ballot.

If the sales tax passes, the revenue would be funneled through a proposed Jackson County Institute for Translational Research and Medicine, a collaboration between Children’s Mercy Hosptial, St. Luke’s Health System and the University of Missouri-Kansas City, and the Kansas City Area Life Sciences Institute.

Under the plan, the institute would recruit and employ an “elite” group of physician scientists and support staff to conduct advanced research.

The sales tax is projected to raise about $40 million a year to cover salaries, labs and equipment. Proponents say the direct and indirect economic benefit would be more than $600 million in the first decade. It would support about nine “world-class investigators” and their teams.

Children’s Mercy Hospital would get about half the money, St. Luke’s Hospital and the University of Missouri-Kansas City would get about 20 percent, roughly $8 million per year, with 10 percent to go for other economic development, such as training at Metropolitan Community Colleges.

The legislature negotiated some stipulations before its vote, including that one of its members (appointed by the legislature) be a voting member of the institute and the county will be reimbursed for costs of the election out of the tax proceeds.

Dan Tarwater, 4th District, said “I’m an eternal optimist, I believe there will be revenue coming back in.”

He did ask what safeguards the county has for its share of profits for any intellectual property developed, for example, in cases where ongoing research is already half way to a commercial application.

“Will we get 20 percent of 50 percent?” he asked.

Peter Levi, a lawyer working on the proposal, said the institute’s board of directors would be writing policies to cover that and other financial issues. The scientists would direct research spending, he said.

County Executive Mike Sanders, speaking to reporters after the event predicted there would be a “vigorous” discussion of whether a sales tax is the appropriate way to finance the initiative.

He noted that about 40-percent of Jackson County sales taxes come from people who live outside the county. Sanders said government investment in research is part of modern life and Jackson County should support creating the institute to be competitive with other regions seeking to use life-science industries for growth.

He said the collaboration offers more opportunity for the region than sports stadiums, than Kansas City’s Power & Light District or other public projects supported for their economic spin-offs.

“I’m going to vote for this, I see the potential for the community,” Sanders said. “There’s more potential than with any other project in my lifetime.”

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