Medical research tax goes down hard in Jackson County

The Kansas City StarNovember 8, 2013 

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    See related story, some residents claim water district election mixup on Page 13.

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

Loudly.

By a greater than 5-to-1 ratio, the county’s voters on Nov. 5 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,” said a somber Russ Welsh, past chairman of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce.

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.

“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.

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.

After spending $2 million on their campaign, proponents of Question 1 came up far short. “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.”

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. About $4 million was earmarked for related economic development efforts, such as training programs at Metropolitan Community Colleges. Proponents predicted economic spinoffs.

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.

Opponents stressed the speculative nature of the proposal.

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.

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