Friday, August 19, 2011

Stem Cell Agency Cuts Travel Under Pressure from Governor

No more lollygagging in London – that's the message from Gov. Jerry Brown to the California stem cell agency.

Brown is trying to crack down on out-of-state travel, including two dozen "mission critical" international CIRM trips to such locations as Paris, Amsterdam, Japan and Australia.

The Sacramento Bee this afternoon reported the governor's efforts to limit CIRM travel at a time when the state is under extreme financial duress. Reporter David Sider of The Bee quoted Evan Westrup, a Brown spokesman, as saying,
"Now is not the time to be lollygagging in London on the taxpayer's dime. We have quite a bit to focus on here in California."
The travel issue comes as the stem cell agency will be seeking support from the governor for a significant allocation from the sale of state bonds this fall. The agency will face a severe cash crunch late next spring unless it receives additional bond funding.

The Bee said that following an inquiry earlier this week by the newspaper, new CIRM Chairman Jonathan Thomas wrote to CIRM board members that he is reducing his office's travel by more than 50 percent and "has asked officials to consider similar reductions elsewhere in the agency."

According to The Bee, Thomas noted that like former CIRM Chairman Robert Klein he considered the proposed travel "mission critical," but said,
"I believe we can accomplish these goals while doing our part to reduce expenditures in these times of fiscal challenge."
However, the amount of travel expense involved is tiny in comparison to the agency's research grants, which now total more than $1 billion. CIRM's operational budget is only $18.5 million.

For the 54-person agency, the total budgeted travel (in state and out of state) for this fiscal year is $494,000,down from the $500,000 budgeted in 2010-11. The out-of-state travel budget for the office of the chair is $100,000. For the president's office, it is $107,356.

One reader commenting on The Bee story said,
"In the world of research, there are meetings all over the world, and if you don't attend you become irrelevant. ...I know none of you(other readers) will agree, but research is very different than going to Las Vegas for the WIz BAG Conference, then out on the town.  Research meetings are working meetings where people doing primary research work on the problems disjointed but collaboratively in the same breath."
Our comment: CIRM's travel expenses are a symbol in the context of the governor's public austerity efforts. While symbols are important, the travel expenses do not affect or come out of the state budget. They come from bond funds. CIRM's operational budget – also funded by bonds – is very tight, some say too tight to do the job right. If Brown is concerned about spending by the stem cell agency, he should focus on significant expenditures – grants and loans -- and whether the state is getting the most for its money. One way would to do that would be a true performance audit conducted under the auspices of the state controller instead of under the control of the agency itself.

Here is the text of the memo by Thomas to board members:
"The Governor’s Office recently confirmed that CIRM’s Governing Board has the authority to approve the agency’s out-of-state travel, but requested that CIRM consider reducing its travel expenditures by 50 percent. I have reviewed the proposed budget for out-of-state travel for the Office of the Chair. Although I believe the proposed travel is mission critical, as it is intended to advance CIRM’s mission by leveraging CIRM’s investment in stem cell research with investments by other countries and states with which CIRM has collaborative funding rrangements, I believe we can accomplish these goals while doing our part to reduce expenditures in these times of fiscal challenge. I have therefore decided to reduce the out-of-state travel budget for the Office of the Chair by more than 50 percent. Furthermore, I have requested that the Finance Subcommittee review the out-of-state travel budget for the other offices within CIRM to determine whether similar reductions can be made consistent with CIRM’s mission."
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