Tuesday, August 22, 2006

More State Oversight of CIRM Not Likely

Events last week in Sacramento re-arranged the stem cell stage in California.

The California stem cell agency skated past the latest attempt to bring more stringent oversight to its unique, $6 billion effort to turn stem cells into cures. That means that critics of the agency are not likely to be successful at bringing CIRM under more state direction for the foreseeable future.

A hefty scandal is about all that would create a climate conducive to major changes at the agency. At the same time, the door has opened for a state politician or two to seize the stem cell issue.

The quiet demise of the stem cell oversight bill by state Sen. Deborah Ortiz, D-Sacramento, signalled the new arrangements. Ortiz is chair of the Senate Health Committee and a pioneer on California stem cell issues. But term limits are forcing her from office at the end of the year and have reduced her legislative clout.

Assemblywoman Judy Chu, D-Monterey Park, chair of the Assembly Appropriations Committee, Thursday dispatched Ortiz' measure (SB401) to legislative oblivion. No vote was taken as Chu ordered the bill held in committee. Chu indicated, among other reasons, that she did not want to move forward with another stem cell ballot measure, which Ortiz' bill would have been.

Ortiz had a different view. She said the bill would have improved the performance of the agency and ensured access to affordable cures.

"The measure was extensively debated and refined during two years of public informational and legislative committee hearings. It had bipartisan support in both houses of the Legislature, and was supported by public interest groups.

"The bill was steadfastly opposed by the CIRM and the ICOC, the two entities the bill would have opened to increased public scrutiny. This is nothing but an example of a special interest group killing legislation to avoid being held accountable to those it serves."
Normally state departments, of which CIRM is one, are subject to regulation by the state legislature, which approves their budgets and can change their scope or eliminate them entirely. CIRM is radically different. It is a creature of the ballot. Voters altered the state constitution and state law to create the agency. Changes in the agency can only be made by another ballot initiative or by approval of 70 percent both houses of the state legislature and the governor. And that legislative action can only happen three full years after adoption of Prop. 71, which would be in November 2007. The extraordinary, "super-super" vote requirement makes it virtually impossible to tinker with CIRM. It would only 13 state senators to block any changes affecting the agency.

Nonetheless, political hay can be made involving embryonic stem cell research – on all sides of the issue. Gov. Schwarzenegger, who is facing a re-election challenge, made that clear a few weeks ago when he ponied up $150 million to ease the financial strains at CIRM. The impending departure of Ortiz leaves a void in the legislature on stem cell issues. Just who may fill it is unclear. Assemblyman Dave Jones, D-Sacramento, has been mentioned as one possibility. Ortiz was a friendly critic of the agency, although some at the agency did not regard her in that fashion. An unfriendly legislative critic can create considerable mischief, even if he or she cannot effectively make changes legislatively.

If the concept of political hay mixing with stem cell research is troubling, consider the host of continuing public policy issues involving CIRM and the nature of the research, ranging from treatment of egg donors to conflicts of interest. The fact is that politics and stem cell research are inextricably linked. It behooves the agency to keep a close eye on the state Capitol.

California newspapers paid scant attention to the demise of Ortiz bill. Most, if they carried any article at all, relied on a brief from The Associated Press. Reporter Judy Lin of The Sacramento Bee had a somewhat longer piece.

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