Tuesday, September 02, 2008

California Lawmakers Make Stem Cell History

Another first has been scored in the brief history of California's unique and unprecedented, $3 billion stem cell research effort.

For the first time, California lawmakers have passed legislation that would affect the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine, a tiny state agency that functions largely outside of the control of both the governor and the state Legislature. CIRM was deliberately created that way through an initiative measure passed by voters in 2004. No lawmakers or other elected officials had a say in its contents.

The complex proposal, Prop. 71, set an extremely high bar against tinkering in its operations by the legislature. The ballot measure required a 70 percent vote of both houses to pass legislation that would affect CIRM – a super, supermajority vote that does not exist for any other bill. Even the state budget requires only a two-thirds vote. That hurdle has been so difficult to clear that California is now deadlocked in a record-setting, two-month long budget crisis.

Nonetheless, lawmakers last week sent to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger a bill – SB1565 – by Sens. Sheila Kuehl(see photo), D-Santa Monica, and George Runner, R-Antelope Valley, designed to ensure affordable access to stem cell therapies developed as a result of state funding. The bill was opposed by CIRM, industry and some patient advocates. They complained about its lack of flexibility, economic impediments and a change that would make it easier to fund research that was not based on human embryonic stem cells.

Kuehl said the bill is needed because Prop. 71 "lacks any provisions" to ensure that poor and uninsured Californians will be able to receive state-funded therapies at "the best available prices." She is joined by a raft of supporters included health access groups, retired persons, nurses and others.

The governor has until Sept. 30 to act on the bill. Otherwise it will go into effect without his signature. He could veto it. An override of the veto would seem remote even though the bill passed overwhelmingly. No negative votes were recorded until the measure hit the Assembly and then only a handful. It finally went to the governor after the Senate on Aug. 29 concurred, 37-1, in Assembly amendments.

Schwarzenegger has been a good friend of the stem cell agency and has garnered considerable favorable publicity touting it as a model for a way to get things done. Our bet is that he will veto the bill, but we could be wrong.

(Editor's note: The governor has pledged to veto any bill that comes his way until the budget crisis is resolved. However, he has breached that promise several times already. But his pledge could be good political cover for a veto if he chooses to use it. That also assumes no budget will be in place by Sept. 30.)

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