Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The California Stem Cell Agency and $435 Million in Budget 'Bafflegab'

The finances of the $3 billion California stem cell agency are something less than transparent, a situation that today led a longtime CIRM observer to write about its "funny money" and the lack of an accurate accounting of where the agency stands.

The comments came from John M. Simpson, stem cell project director for Consumer Watchdog of Santa Monica, Ca., who wrote against the backdrop of California's $40 billion budget crisis. Simpson ran through the budget arithmetic and noted that CIRM has awarded $635 million in grants, many of which are multiyear. According to information Simpson compiled from CIRM, the state treasurer and state controller's offices, he said CIRM has committed $435 million it doesn't yet have.

CIRM Chairman Robert Klein had a chance to explain the situation last week before the directors' Finance Subcommittee. Instead, Simpson wrote, "there was discussion of a proposed loan program and two recaps" of how CIRM dealt with bond anticipation notes in 2005 and 2006.

Simpson said,
"What's been missing in all of this is an accurate accounting of where CIRM stands financially."
Simpson continued,
"Here's my two-cents worth:  Somebody in this highly paid group needs to present a real budget that shows when CIRM will run out of money.  Then there needs to  be a serious, realistic discussion about what to do about it. Approving more grants when you're already $435 million in the hole might just not be the prudent course.

"One thing for certain, the ICOC (the CIRM board) and public are entitled to a clear explanation of where CIRM stands financially, not bafflegab about pie-in-the sky funding schemes and Obama stimulus packages."
The subject of CIRM finances is on the board of directors' agenda for Thursday and Friday as it was last week before the Finance panel. In the past, the subcommittee presentation is merely repeated at the full board meeting.

What is needed is a straight-forward budget and finance document (far more than a sketchy PowerPoint presentation). It should include all the numbers, written explanations of assumptions and caveats, possible future scenarios, strategies to deal with various contingencies and the pros and cons. Anything less is a disservice to the people of California, not to mention the CIRM board and the hundreds of scientists whose work hangs on CIRM's financial well-being.

(We have told CIRM that if it has any comments on Simpson's remarks or this posting, we will carry its response verbatim. If you have comments, you can post them directly on this blog by clicking on the word "comments" below. Anonymous comments are permitted.)

(Editor's note: An earlier version of this item incorrectly said CIRM had approved $653 million in grants. The correct figure is $635 million.)

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