Tuesday, February 11, 2014

California Stem Cell Agency Shies Away from a $200 Million Possibility

The California stem cell agency has backed far, far away from a tobacco tax initiative that would provide it with more than $200 million a year – funds that could save it from an untimely demise in a few short years.

The leadership of the $3 billion enterprise fears that the tobacco industry would tar the entire stem cell research field in a no-holds-barred ballot campaign financed with $50 million or more.

CIRM Chairman Jonathan Thomas said that the tobacco industry would paint “a very negative, and unnecessarily so, picture of stem cell research and would very likely result in a measure that would go down and create a chilling effect on the view of all the good we've done.”

In a reference to the tobacco industry, he said,
“These guys, they play for keeps, and they say things in their ads...that are misleading or inaccurate, but there's nothing you can do about it.”
Thomas said that initially the ballot proposal sounded “great” but after agency officials talked to political consultants and pollsters, their perspective changed.

He said that he understood that the agency is being written out of the proposed initiative which is aimed at funding a wide range of brain research.

Thomas made his comments at a meeting of the only state body charged with overseeing the finances of the stem cell agency – the Citizens Financial Accountability and Oversight Committee, which is chaired by State Controller John Chiang. Thomas was commenting in connection with the fact that the agency will run out of funds for new grants in the latter part of 2017.

Our take: Thomas is correct that it would be a bloody campaign. Stem cell research is a big target. However, the tobacco industry is even bigger. It needed to spend $50 million to very narrowly defeat a similar tax measure in 2012 by only 30,000 votes out of 5 million cast.

A successful campaign for the stem cell agency would be about life (stem cells) versus death (tobacco). Indeed, a truly vicious campaign by the tobacco industry could well backfire on the industry, creating even more antipathy and animosity than now exists. A winning ballot measure also needs a good villain to help rally support. In 2004, when the stem cell agency was created, the campaign had that villain -- former President George Bush and his restrictions on human embryonic stem cell research. 

A ballot proposal could win but it would take a united front, an early start and a willingness to take some fire.

Important policy issues, however, would arise involving dedication of tax revenues for a specific purpose, one of the reasons the state of California has had financial difficulties.

All of which is moot since the agency has made it clear that it is not game for the battle.
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