Thursday, March 06, 2008

Dissecting the Legislative Strategy Behind the Latest California Stem Cell Bill

Think motherhood when you think about new state legislation aimed at California's $3 billion stem cell agency.

That's the strategy on the latest bill that targets the world's largest source of funding for human embryonic stem cell research, all of which comes at the expense of California taxpayers.

Think of those millions of taxpayers as investors. Who can say they should not receive a tidy return on their $6 billion (including interest) commitment? Who can oppose a nonpartisan, thorough-going review of the agency, which has stumbled more than once and which is riddled with built-in conflicts of interest? Especially when that agency lives in a constitutionally protected, ivory-tower world, far from the bloody financial fray now underway beneath the Capitol dome.

While motherhood is not as popular as it once was, these are motherhood questions for lawmakers and hard to oppose.

The current political climate may now be as receptive for passage of the bill, SB1565, as at any time. Legislative demonstrations of fiscal prudence are the order of the day in the Capitol. Stifling government profligacy is the paramount virtue.

CIRM gave supporters of the legislation more leverage when the agency offered an ill-timed plan to boost the maximum pay ranges of CIRM's top executives by 50 percent, or $200,000 annually in some cases. The CIRM pay plan received a public and negative airing on the same day that a $16 billion state budget deficit was announced. A subcommittee of CIRM directors balked at the executive pay proposal, but it will surface again next Wednesday. Introduction of the CIRM legislation came only a few days after that subcommittee hearing, probably not coincidentally.

The lead author on the CIRM bill is Sen. Sheila Kuehl, D-Santa Monica, who is chair of Senate Health Committee. Republican Sen. George Runner of Antelope Valley, who is part of the GOP leadership, is co-author.

Their position is that CIRM has offered an inadequate return to California investors/taxpayers. Kuehl and Runner instead propose to guarantee in state law that California residents have affordable access to therapies developed with state cash, an issue which affects CIRM's intellectual property rules. The lawmakers also want to mandate a study of CIRM with recommendations for changes. Kuehl said that one reason for her latest legislation involves breaches of the agency's conflict-of-interest policy by a number of its directors.

The bill needs 70 percent approval of both houses of the Legislature –- a super, supermajority requirement created by Prop. 71. The unique and unprecedented requirement is intended to protect the agency, but lawmakers may now regard it as a challenge to their authority.

CIRM has opposed similar legislation in the past, but it has not taken an official position on SB1565, which is the embodiment of simplicity in some ways. It could be easily severed to put the requirement for a study on CIRM operations in a separate measure, which could help its chances.

CIRM is likely to oppose the study, however, because it could generate public hearings and open the door to greater changes in CIRM procedures. At the very least, the hearings could lead to critical news coverage and possibly threaten CIRM's credibility and clout.

Next Wednesday some CIRM directors and executives will be visiting with lawmakers following the agency's Oversight Committee meeting. Kuehl's legislation is likely to come up during those sessions along with the pay proposal. CIRM supporters should be prepared with some good answers. Sphere: Related Content

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