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Compounding skepticism about the tax is the way it has been trotted out, splashed publicly for the first time on the front page of the August 8 edition of The Kansas City Star, less than three months before voting.
But little organized opposition has emerged so far.
Perhaps Jackson County voters are fine with paying more sales tax so that local researchers can look for new medical treatments. (The pro-tax TV ads that show kids and seniors in hospital rooms don't do much to explain translational research, but they tug the heartstrings.) Or maybe marching out a big, complicated proposal just weeks before an off-year Election Day is supposed to short-circuit the kind of discussion that could push against the tax.
The proposal basically goes like this: If the tax passes, $40 million a year for the next 20 years will mostly fund translational medical research.
Translational research is what happens after basic research. For example, basic research might focus on figuring out which gene mutations trigger a type of cancer. Translational medical research uses that knowledge to develop treatments for that type of cancer, put them through clinical trials and, if successful, bring them to market. Patients get medicine, and pharmaceutical companies make millions, if not billions.
The $40 million a year would flow through a Jackson County Institute for Translational Medicine. The institute at Hospital Hill would use half of that annual $40 million for research by Children's Mercy Hospital, while 20 percent would be earmarked for research at UMKC, and another 20 percent for St. Luke's. The rest would go to vaguely defined grants and research-training programs offered through the Metropolitan Community College system.
Backers of the proposal are betting that the research might lead to those pharmaceutical billions. If a discovery makes money, 20 percent of the net revenue from its sales are supposed to come back to Jackson County for various purposes, such as public health, or back to the JCITM itself.
The idea that Jackson County residents would pay for this type of research is a new concept for the public at large, but the measure's planners have been developing it for years. The opportunity they had hoped for came when another Jackson County initiative, a large-scale mass-transit proposal shopped around for the past few years by Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders, went off the rails earlier this year.
Jackson County's pursuit of funding for medical research goes back as far as 2007. But you wouldn't have known it from the Jackson County Legislature's August 26 meeting, when elected officials were asked to put the $800 million tax (more, if you count inflation) on the November 5 ballot.
Securing a vote that day was important to tax advocates, who wouldn't have another audience with the Jackson County Legislature before the deadline for adding their measure this year.
In the basement of the Independence Courthouse Annex on that hot, sweaty day, Legislature chairman Greg Grounds leaned toward his microphone and told an unusually packed crowd (mostly media and tax proponents) that the noon meeting would start late. Bureaucrats were still trying to type up the ballot and ordinance language to meet several changes requested by legislators since the tax proposal's public airing the week before.
The ballot information made it to the legislators, but some additional specifics needed to be pinned down.