Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Tobacco Taxes and Stem Cells: Backers Still Not Talking, Questions Raised

Backers of a proposal that could rescue the $3 billion California stem cell agency from financial oblivion remained mum today as questions arose about the viability of the possible ballot measure.

The plan would raise roughly $700 million annually by increasing tobacco taxes, channeling about $200 million to the stem cell agency through a ballot initiative that would have to be approved California voters. The stem cell agency is scheduled to run out of cash for new awards in 2017 and is casting about for new sources of funding.

However, CIRM, as the agency is known, was largely caught by surprise last week by the release of the details of the proposal, which was filed by prominent Orange County attorney Frank Barbaro, former chairman of the county's Democratic Party.

Barbaro has not responded to email requests for more information about the backers of the plan and their financial commitment to an electoral campaign. Backers of a similar proposal that was narrowly defeated in 2012, Prop. 29, said they knew nothing about the effort.

The latest measure could go on the November ballot this year or the general election ballot in 2016 if it qualifies. The timeline for November is daunting. Responding to a query from the California Stem Cell Report, Sacramento political consultant Jeff Raimundo said in an email,
“Sounds like most people didn’t know this was coming. An Orange County attorney filing an initiative with no known backers?  Hmmm…formula for failure? 
“If stem cell agency folks didn’t know about it (and there’s no real reason to believe they did) and the cancer-fighting community had no knowledge, it’s hard to figure out how proponents are going to muster support from voters who only two years ago rejected a similar proposal from a more transparent and credible group. Prop. 29 barely failed, but it had a big push from advocacy organizations. 
“Too many questions right now to get a good handle on how effective such a campaign might be  -- who the REAL sponsors are, who would put up the money for the campaign, whether the OC attorney is a shill for someone else, whether those who back CIRM and its research role can be persuaded to back a new proposition. Many more initiative proposals are filed than are ever circulated. And many more are circulated than ever actually make the ballot in Californa. They’ve got a long way to go and not a lot of time to get there.”
The agency said last week that it has not endorsed the plan. Directors have not yet had a chance to consider it during a public meeting.

But CIRM Director Francisco Prieto, a Sacramento physician, told the California Stem Cell Report,
“I wasn’t aware of the tie-in to CIRM funding before (Friday). I don’t think they asked us first, but I’d be happy to see it pass, of course. I’m in favor of so-called 'sin taxes' – including those I pay when I support California’s wine industry. Raising the price of tobacco is one of the single most effective things that we can do to reduce smoking rates, especially among young people who are the most price sensitive. As the guy who has to sign the death certificates, I’m in favor of anything we can do to reduce smoking.”
Another CIRM director who responded to our queries, Jeff Sheehy, a communications manager at UC San Francisco, said that conceptually the proposal could make sense.
 "It's a better source of funds.  However, it does create a well-funded opposition campaign.  Still trying to  figure out if this is a good thing or not," Sheehy said.
Other board members as well said they had no advance knowledge of details of the measure.

Robert Klein, the former chairman of the agency, also responded, saying that that he was not involved in the proposal. He said he questioned the structure and funding approach but declined to elaborate.

Earlier last month we asked Klein about talk in the California stem cell community that he was involved in another bond measure effort for CIRM. Bonds are the current source of funding for the agency.

A spokeswoman for Klein replied,
“There is no campaign. We have done a single one scientific briefing on the progress of Proposition 71(the measure that created CIRM in 2004). It is strictly informational and does not constitute a campaign. We will decide in late 2015 what the next steps will be based on the scientific research at that time.”
Our take: In terms of the financial structure, Barbaro's tobacco tax proposal has at least one downside for CIRM. If the measure is successful in its goal of reducing smoking, the amount of money it raises from tobacco consumption will decrease. That, of course, would mean a dwindling amount of cash for the agency.

Launching a campaign for next fall's ballot would require a prodigious effort at this late stage even if some of the millions needed are already nailed down. The groups that backed the measure in 2012 are not likely to jump aboard immediately given their surprise at the latest proposal. They also may have other priorities as well at this point. Organizationally, work would have to begin now even though there is the possibility that not enough signatures could be gathered by the end of May to qualify for the fall ballot.

Opposition from the tobacco industry would be fierce. It raised $47 million in 2012 for its campaign compared to $12.3 million from the backers of the tobacco tax.
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