Monday, May 17, 2010

The Folly of Ballot Box Budgeting and Stem Cell Research

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last week inadvertently highlighted one of the fundamental flaws in the nature of the state's $3 billion stem cell agency.

The action came when the governor released his revised budget for the state of California, which is floundering in a years-long budget crisis. The Golden State is at least $19 billion in the hole, and prospects for clambering out of that financial pit are bleak. Meanwhile, California's debt is climbing, requiring the state to allocate more cash for interest costs. California has the lowest credit rating of any state in the nation and is sometimes compared to Greece.

To deal with crisis, Schwarzenegger wants to eliminate the state's main welfare program for families, making it the only state in the country without one. Nearly one million children would lose state support as a result. State employees would continue see their salaries reduced by 15 percent. In-home health care for the elderly and disabled would be slashed by $750 million. Childcare would end for 142,000 youngsters. All to take care of a deficit so large that it exceeds California's combined spending on prisons and its four-year universities, as Daniel Weintraub of HealthyCal.org pointed out.

Contrast that to California's $3 billion stem cell agency, which is providing whopping, multi-million dollar grants to many already comfortable researchers (more than 300 in all). Hundreds of millions of dollars more will be handed out over the next 18 months, regardless of the state's money woes. And CIRM salaries, among the highest for state employees, will continue to top $500,000. More debt to do all this will be piled on California, which has seen its interest costs soar in the last few years.

However, that does not mean that CIRM's stem cell research is not worthwhile. And it does not mean that the spending by CIRM does not have something of a beneficial economic impact. What the disparity illustrates is the folly of ballot-box budgeting and locking minutia into state law, which is precisely what Prop. 71 did when it was approved in 2004, creating the California stem cell agency.

One can support the goals of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, as we do, and still deplore the process by which it was created along with the less than salubrious results of Prop. 71, which in some ways is one of CIRM's worst enemies.

We have written more than once about problems that have been created by inartful language in Prop. 71 and dubious mandates. One requires a rare, super, super-majority legislative vote (70 percent) to make any changes in laws affecting CIRM. Currently, the agency is bedeviled by a foolish, 50-person cap on the number of its employees, a provision in the 10,000-word measure. The cap is redundant; another also exists on its operational budget. The agency has constant problems gathering enough of its 29 directors so that they can take legal action. That's the result of another super-majority requirement – this one for quorums of its governing board. The board itself is ungainly. The size, which impedes CIRM's work, was dictated by Prop. 71 authors to give all stakeholders a seat at the money table and thus win their political support in the 2004 election. The list can go on and on.

In a perfect world or even a not-so-perfect world, lawmakers would examine all state spending and weigh the immediate benefits of feeding hungry children, not to mention schooling them, against the desire to find cures for horrendous diseases, a process that can take decades or more. But Prop. 71 froze out the governor and the legislature. The folks in the Capitol cannot touch CIRM's cash, a situation that weakens thoughtful state budgeting. If such restrictions were limited to CIRM, the situation would not be so dire. But other cases of ballot-box budgeting have also hampered the elected representatives who are supposed to keep California's 37 million residents out of this sort of sorry financial mess.

So far, CIRM's cushy cash position and largess have not drawn public attention or even come under serious, visible scrutiny in the Capitol. But they could become a liability – one that could damage CIRM's public support – should an unfortunate event surface or an unfriendly, publicity-savy lawmaker seize on the situation.

All that can be done short-term is to work with legislators on the measure (SB1064) that would remove the 50-person cap and make other needed changes. At the same time, CIRM should carefully manage expectations and avoid the hyberbole that marked the 2004 campaign and that still surfaces from time to time from some of the agency's leadership.

Over the long-term, changes are also overdue in the ballot initiative process. But that is battle for another time and place. Sphere: Related Content

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