By Jeff Fox

Jackson County voters this fall will decide on a proposed half-cent sales tax that would fund translational medical research and, proponents say, make Kansas City a major hub for biomedical research.

“This is big. This is transformational for Kansas City,” said Dr. Wayne O. Carter, president and CEO of the Kansas City Life Sciences Institute.

The tax would raise about $40 million a year for 20 years. That would be divided among Children’s Mercy Hospital, the St. Luke’s Health System, the University of Missouri-Kansas City and a new foundation of those groups and Jackson County. Translational research, as officials describe it, falls in the gap between what basic research has revealed about how a given disease can be attacked and what specific drugs, devices and therapies can be developed or adapted to do that. Much of it is at the genetic level, unraveling which of the 23,000 genes in an individual’s body can be addressed to treat a specific condition.

Several county legislators had pressed research proponents on a variety of issues during a hearing last week, but on Monday they voted 7-2 in favor of putting it on the Nov. 5 ballot.

“I think it’s best that we let the voters decide,” said Theresa Garza-Ruiz, D-Kansas City.

Legislator Greg Grounds, R-Blue Springs, cast one of the two no votes. He said he supports the idea and the plan but had some concerns.

Proponents agreed to pay the cost of the election itself out of receipts from the tax itself.

“But reimbursement supposes that it passes,” Grounds said.

The county has just come through a period of tight finances that meant layoffs and other cuts, he said, and it’s possible it could end up being out this money – well into six figures – as well. In the spring, several municipal elections will be on the ballot, and that spreads out the cost of the election. He said a delay of a few months shouldn’t hurt the translational medicine proposal.

A second concern, he said, has been brought to him by officials in Blue Springs, where voters on Nov. 5 will decide on a half-cent sales tax for parks. That’s mostly for the proposed community center and to make up for park maintenance that’s been deferred over the years. City officials thought they had a clear shot at just one issue on the ballot. Now, Blue Springs voters will be deciding on a full one cent in added taxes.

Legislator Bob Spence, R-Lee’s Summit, also voted no.

“I’ve never had a vote since I’ve sat on this body that’s caused me such consternation,” he said.

On one hand, he is a cancer survivor and hopes researchers continue to make great strides. On the other, he wonders “that we have all we can afford” with current county services, from parks and roads to law enforcement.

“So I had this push and pull for the last month,” he said.

The Legislature did get some changes in the proposal. The county will have a voting member on the board of the new foundation. Some research will be specifically directed at minority communities in the county. The Legislature will have a say over spending money generated by drug and device development. This will be research for humans, not animals. Those were among the concerns raised last week.

“Many of those were addressed, and I appreciate it,” said Legislator James Tindall, D-Kansas City, who last week pointed to a history of strong support in the African-American community for sales tax issues but little follow-through on the promises attached to those taxes.

The election is 10 weeks from today, and proponents describe two overall themes they are likely to push. One is putting Kansas City at the center of this sort of research. They say a steady, reliable source of funding is needed to attract top-notch researchers from around the country. That means more companies and jobs, and more private investment and grants here, they say.

For example, Carter said, advocates project that 10 years into the tax the National Institutes of Health – a prime source research funding – will be putting $20 million a year into the area.

This all builds on such things as the opening of the Stowers Institute several years ago and more recent developments such as the University of Kansas Hospital last year winning National Cancer Institute certification as a cancer center.

Those things add up and feed on each other, advocates say, leading those researchers and companies to cluster together. Venture capitalists come in, they say.

“We don’t want those (companies) to go to San Diego or Boston. We want them here,” Carter said.

There’s even basic work in animal health research – something economic development officials consistently describe as one of the area’s strengths – that feeds into this.

“There is tremendous opportunity that we’re not capitalizing on” at the moment, Carter said.

The other area officials have stressed is simply making Kansas City healthier. Carter described the case of a 37-year-old woman – a mom, stage 4 cancer, two months to live – who responded dramatically to a treatment developed this way. She’s cured, he said.

More broadly, officials point out that obesity, diabetes and other chronic and widespread conditions take a toll, and research breakthroughs on those could make a big difference for the area.

There’s also the Gatorade argument, which has now come up a couple of times. The county would get 20 percent of the proceeds from any device or drug developed with the sales tax money – though they agree that it’s impossible to predict where the next home-run drug is coming from. The University of Florida had a similar role in the development of Gatorade decades ago and has profited well, advocates say.