Sunday, November 16, 2014

A CIRM Performance Perspective from Chief Staff Person on Oversight Panel

Here are comments from Ruth Holton-Hodson, who was the chief staff person on the only state body charged with overseeing the California stem cell agency, on the 10th anniversary of the program.

She worked for State Controller John Chiang, who is the chairman of the Citizens Financial Accountability and Oversight Committee. The committee was created by Proposition 71, which also removed the agency from normal budget oversight by the governor and legislature and ensured an unfettered flow of funds to the agency.

Holton-Hodson was asked for her comments for possible use in an article that appeared today in The Sacramento Bee. It was written by David Jensen, publisher of this blog. Because of space limitations, her remarks did not appear in the article. 

Chiang was elected state treasurer this fall. Holton-Hodson left her post prior to the election to travel and seek new opportunities.

Here is what she had to say via email:
"Proposition 71 exemplifies the problem of allowing individuals, if they have enough resources, to put an initiative on the ballot.  (The problems include) the built-in conflicts of interest of the governing board and the fact that the chair and the vice chair also play staff roles -- completely contrary to good governance practices.  In this case, (Robert) Klein (the first chairman of the CIRM board and who oversaw the drafting of the ballot initiative) wanted to lead the agency so he built the role he wanted.  
"Most voters don't read the fine print; for many the vote was a way to stand up to President Bush.  Probably most importantly, the allocation of huge sums for such a discrete project without any consideration of the opportunity costs (is an issue). Three billion dollars, which was really $6 billion, is a sum that should require vigorous debate as to whether that's the best way to spend taxpayer dollars,  Voters weren't presented a choice between stem cells and other critical issues, so I suspect most voters didn't think about whether that was the best expenditure of funds.  The legislative process, as frustrating as it is, involves a representative body that asks questions, determines the policy that is most acceptable and how or whether it is paid for.
"Klein, as the founder, leader, wanted to run the agency the way he saw fit. That’s fine in the private sector, but these are public dollars. There are rules and norms that must be followed, conflict of interest and transparency being a primary ones.  Klein and frankly the board were completely insensitive to what is an appropriate public sector  salary. They set the salaries based on what academics running large institutions make. Of course, this went back to language in the initiative.  CIRM, however, is hardly a large institution. 
 "Has the agency fulfilled the promise of the campaign of 2004, which left the impression with voters that stem cell cures were right around the corner? The promise of the campaign, as with any campaign, was caught up in the hyperbole needed to get votes.  Completely unrealistic,  and now they've set themselves up for public disappointment and disillusionment.  They promised but weren't able to deliver.
"If the major goal of Proposition 71 was to improve the health of Californians, was spending $6 billion of taxpayer dollars (including bond interest) on stem cell research the best way to do it? If the voters were asked if this was the best way to improve the health of Californians, I suspect they would say no.  Can you imagine what we could have done channeling that much money into the community clinic system, but there isn't a wealthy individual that wants to propose that we have a first class health care clinic in every community.
"Regarding the future of the agency, is it realistic to expect California to continue to invest billions more in the agency and stem cell research? Given both the changed politics around stem cells and the terrible budget years California has just gone through, I would be very surprised if the voters were to approve another initiative." 
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