Voters asked to OK sales tax for medical research

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Supporters of a proposed half-cent sales tax to pay for medical research say Tuesday’s election is a unique opportunity for Jackson County voters to invest an innovative future that will make Kansas City synonymous with something other than barbecue.

Opponents question why middle- and lower-income Jackson County residents still trying to recover from the recession should be responsible for bulking up research budgets of two local hospitals and the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

The tax would raise about $40 million a year — $800 million over its 20-year lifespan — to pay for medical research at Children’s Mercy Hospital, St. Luke’s hospitals and UMKC’S four health professional schools. Children’s Mercy would get half of the proceeds, while St. Luke’s and UMKC would get 20 percent apiece. The remaining 10 percent would go toward research-related economic development, as determined by the Jackson County Institute for Translational Medicine, an umbrella organization that would be created to oversee spending.

If Jackson County voters approve the measure on Tuesday’s ballot, Donald J. Hall and the Hall Family Foundation promise to build a $75 million home for the institute at Children’s Mercy. That pledge, the largest ever made by the foundation, would allow the hospital to hire scientists, researchers and support staff with the sales tax money.

Supporters say it’s a rare opportunity to establish Kansas City as a national medical research hub, complementing medical assets already in place in the metro area, including the University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City, Kan.

“Translational means translating medical research to patient care,” said Steve Glorioso, a spokesman for the pro-tax Committee for Research, Treatment and Cures. “A lot of this is going to be about treatment of people.”

Approval would result in nearly 240 new jobs and have a $600 million impact in the first decade, according to the Civic Council of Greater Kansas City, which pushed to have the tax measure put on the ballot. The council, comprised of the area’s top chief executives, has long promoted the idea that life sciences research can boost the region’s economy.

“This tax is a mechanism to finance innovation,” said David Westbrook, senior vice president for strategy and innovation at Children’s Mercy. “The good news about our campaign is that nobody has quarreled with our agenda. There has been some dissent in how we’re going to pay for it.”

Opponents, such as the League of Women Voters and the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, say the sales tax is regressive and puts the burden on the people who can least afford it. For every $100 spent in Jackson County, shoppers would pay an additional 50 cents on top of existing sales taxes.

“If you have a six-figure income, it’s not that much,” said Linda Vogel Smith, president of the KC chapter of the League of Women Voters. “There are 30,000 people in Jackson County who have no health insurance. They do not have access to the kind of health care that those who are more affluent have, yet they are being asked to pay this tax.”

She said her organization doesn’t oppose medical research, but believes there are other sources of financial support. Among those are the National Institutes of Health, which in 2011 gave the University of Kansas Medical Center a nearly $20 million Clinical and Translational Science grant.

“That tells you there is money out there already,” Smith said.

The diocese has been promised the tax wouldn’t pay for embryonic stem cell research, but said it isn’t reassured because the language isn’t written in the ballot measure. It also says the wrong people are being asked to pay up.

“Question 1 still asks the citizens of one single county in one single state to provide $800,000,000 for the national goal of medical research while providing nothing for desperate local needs,” the diocese said in a statement.

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