By Jeff Fox

Opponents of a proposed sales tax for translational medical research came out sharply against the idea Tuesday night.

“This is venture capital for private hospitals, and it’s your tax dollars,” Dr. Brad Bradshaw of Citizens for Responsible Research said at a forum in Independence.

Jackson County voters will decide the issue on Nov. 5. It’s a half-cent sales tax, for 20 years. It would raise about $40 million a year. The money would go chiefly to three organizations – Children’s Mercy Hospital, St. Luke’s Health System and the University of Missouri-Kansas City – to fund translational research, which is the link between basic research in the lab and an actual treatment.

Proponents have said the funding would transform the metro area, attracting top medical researchers and spinning off new companies and high-paying jobs, not to mention improvements in care for everything from diabetes to pediatrics.

But opponents of the ballot proposal tore into those claims Tuesday night, applifying the arguments they are making with billboards popping up around the county. They argued:

• The amount raised – $800 million over 20 years – won’t be enough to do much good. Opponents pointed to a National Institutes of Health finding that the average medical cure costs $2 billion to develop and that such research has a 90 percent failure rate.

Those proposing the tax have said the money would be spread across several research projects over the years and that the money would attract other tens of millions of dollars from sources such as the NIH.

• The ballot language is too vague. An agreement among the participants – the county, the two hospitals and UMKC, the Kansas City Life Sciences Institute – Jackson County would get 20 percent of the profits from any drug, device or therapy developed, and that money would go for local health needs, among other things.

But opponents say those numbers can be fudged too easily and keep the county from getting anything, and Bradshaw said the agreement putting that in place can easily be changed.

• Sales taxes are regressive and too high already, and this sales tax could crowd out others needed in the future to maintain basic services.

Linda Vogel Smith of the League of Women Voters of Kansas City/Jackson, Clay and Platte counties, which has come out against the proposal, used this example. She got a light breakfast the other day and looked at the receipt – 23 cents in taxes on a $2 meal.

“That’s 11-plus percent on my cup of coffee and my bacon biscuit,” she said. Those taxes add up, and she dismissed proponents’ claims that the average resident would pay about $3 a month. She put it closer to $7 or $8, potentially $96 a year.

“Now, you know, it adds up,” she said.

• Jackson County shouldn’t go alone on this for something that would benefit the entire metro area – 500 jobs in Jackson County and 500 homes in Johnson County is how Bradshaw put it, borrowing the phrasing of another opponent.

“It just doesn’t make sense to hit one county,” said Jim Fitzpatrick, treasurer of Citizens to Stop a Bad Cure.

Bradshaw favors a statewide approach and might try to get a quarter-cent or half-cent tax on the ballot in the future, raising far more money.

“That is something that will actually find cures,” he said.

• Vogel Smith pointed to a five-year, $19.7 million translational research grant from the NIH that the University of Kansas Medical Center got in 2011.

“So believe it or not, one (research facility) is existing already,” she said. “Problem is, it’s on the other side of the state line.”

• Fitzpatrick also criticized the political process that got this issue on the ballot. Proponents unveiled their plans in early August and acknowledged at the time they had much work to do to explain what translational medicine is and what their initiative could mean for the area. That gave Jackson County legislators about three weeks of public consideration before the deadline to get on the Nov. 5 ballot.

“So it landed like a meteor, hissing and smoking, on the steps of the county courthouse,” Fitzpatrick said.

He said the County Legislature – a group he called “cowardly” twice – didn’t give the issue the time and deliberation needed.

“They were just arm-twisted by the Civic Council ... of KC,” he said, referring to one of the main backers of the proposal. Of the Civic Council, he added, “This is something they want, and they want to impose their will on us.”

Backers hoped for a below-the-radar campaign, he contended, but pointed to several groups that have in recent weeks come out against it. In addition to those represented at Tuesday’s meeting, those groups include Freedom Inc., a powerful Kansas City political club, as well as the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph. Several groups have endorsed it, including the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce.

“All of a sudden there’s a big wall here. ... I think we will prevail on Nov. 5,” Fitzpatrick said.