Saturday, April 02, 2011

California Budget Mess Threatens CIRM Funding

The collapse of efforts to resolve California's financial crisis in June seems nearly certain to place the state's $3 billion stem cell research program perilously close to a serious cash crunch come next year.

The situation should come as no surprise to lame duck CIRM Chairman Robert Klein, who stunned the agency's governing board in 2009 with similar news. Additionally, in December of last year, only days after he told the CIRM directors Finance Subcommittee that no funding problems existed, Klein warned the full board that it was "essential" that the agency quickly provide assurances of "reliability of our funding."

Klein, a real estate investment banker, considers himself something of a government bond expert because of his experience with housing bonds. He says he and a handful of associates crafted the ballot initiative that created CIRM, Prop. 71, to avoid the financial vagaries that have plagued the NIH. To do that, he relied on borrowed money (state bonds), which makes everything CIRM does cost twice as much as it would on a normal basis. For example, the $20 million grant to scientist Dennis Carson at UC San Diego actually will cost state taxpayers about $40 million because of the interest on the borrowing. Interest costs for CIRM currently run $200,000 a day on the $1 billion it has borrowed so far.

Klein's plan assumed that the state would regularly issue bonds. However, beginning last January, the state suspended the sales of bonds for six months to avoid $248 million in additional interest costs. Today, the state budget remains many billions in the red, and most signs point to continuation of that bond delay decision.

Two days ago, The Bond Buyer financial newspaper reported that state Treasurer Bill Lockyer will not sell bonds until the state budget is balanced. Reporter Rich Saskal quoted Lockyer's spokesman, Tom Dresslar, as saying,
"The bottom line in terms of (revenue anticipation notes) and infrastructure bonds is the timely adoption of a balanced budget."
The California Stem Cell Report first discussed the bond sale problem on March 23. That was before the collapse of budget negotiations in Sacramento. The situation is much more serious today.

At this point, a balanced state budget is not likely to occur unless voters approve in November tax increases  – which they have previously rejected -- through a ballot initiative that is yet to be written. Even then, bond sales are not likely until sometime in 2012, according to Lockyer.

While CIRM says it has sufficient cash on hand to deal with its existing obligations until June of 2012, the agency's timetable calls for new grant rounds to continue to move forward aggressively this year and next. Extreme pressure will be felt in the treasurer's office from competing interests for urgent and early bond sales when they resume. And a good possibility exists that CIRM bond sales will not come up in the first round in 2012, assuming sales are resumed then.

On May 3-4, the 29 directors of the stem cell agency are scheduled to meet in Los Angeles. High on their agenda should be a discussion of finances and alternatives to ensure that CIRM's grant programs continue to move forward – albeit slowly -- even if bond revenues do not materialize until well into next year. Delay could be the operative response. Postponing new grant programs, RFAs for existing efforts and even payments to researchers and institutions – all could be on the table. One additional matter to discuss – designation of someone to deal with the full range of bond issues, given that Klein is leaving his post in less than three months, if not sooner.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous6:19 PM

    It is about time funding for California's nearly-untouchable entities is also put on the chopping block.In my humble opinion, every financial decision and, it follows, every dollar spent at this entity needs major oversight by John Chiang and others in finance who are accountable to the Governor.

    Hasn't California learned its lesson in leveraging (aka borrowing) money in the name of serving the needs of the people? Interest on the bond money used to fund CIRM is reportedly costing $200,000 per day, folks. In this economic climate, that shouldn't be chump change by anyone's standards.