Tuesday, January 20, 2009

CIRM Defends Its Spending, Positive Impact Cited

The California stem cell agency today commented on the "Millions for Science vs. Cuts in Medical Help for the Poor" item but seems to have missed the point.

Here is full text of what Don Gibbons, chief communications officer for CIRM, sent along:
"Your item on the California budget makes me think you are Herbert Hoover's grandson. CIRM bonds are structured so that there is no repayment prior to January 2010. That means our bonds have no impact on the general fund that is in trouble. All of our grants are pure economic stimulus. When half of Washington is ringing its hands over the fact that “not enough shovel-ready projects” exist to absorb the needed stimulus, shuttering projects that are already having a positive impact, with no negative impact, makes no sense. And the Obama administration is talking about high tech stimulus, like our research, as well as bricks and mortar, like our facilities construction."
Putting aside his personal comments about my ancestry, Gibbons does not deal with the essential point of the item, which is whether it is good public policy to lock up state funds via the initiative process and then hamstring elected leaders when it come time to deal with issues that go well beyond such relatively minor matters as stem cell research.

Beyond that, CIRM's spending, financed by the state of California, flies in the face of the hardship seen elsewhere and poses PR and legislative problems that may ultimately damage the agency. And that is regardless of whether the spending is legal, justified or economically beneficial. State employees are being laid off and salaries cut while three CIRM executives rank in the top ten highest paid state employees while running a tiny, 38-person staff. That is not a image to wave in front of lawmakers right now.

As we have observed in the past, CIRM does have an economic impact, but it is relatively minor in the context of the California economy. In regards to CIRM and economic stimulus/bailouts in Washington, we will have more on CIRM's moves to seek federal assistance later today or tomorrow.

The issues surrounding the creation of CIRM via ballot initiative go well beyond the agency itself and are part of the problems that have helped to create the state's $40 billion budget crisis. It is a crisis that will strike at CIRM as well if it is not solved in the next month or two.

Last summer, the Center for Governmental Studies, a respected nonpartisan think tank in Los Angeles, released its latest report on the California initiative process. "Democracy by Initiative." The 402-page study cited Prop. 71, which created CIRM, as an example of an initiative sponsored by "wealthy elites," one that contained "deficiencies in drafting." "Ineptly written," one critic was quoted as saying.

The report declared:
"Jean Ross, executive director of the California Budget Project, has described initiatives as a case of eating 'dessert without having to eat your vegetables. You can put $3 billion worth of stem cell research bonds on the ballot [Proposition 71] without the voters having to tell you where the $300 million a year to pay those bonds is going to come from, and without asking voters to make the kinds of priorities and choices that the executive branch and legislative branch have to. The voters didn’t have a choice, do you want to cover all children with health insurance in California for 10 years, or do you want stem cell bonds? Those are the kinds of choices that come from the legislature.'"
The report also noted that it cost $6.9 million to qualify Prop. 71 for the ballot, including $2.7 million to paid circulators. CIRM Chairman Robert Klein, who says he wrote the measure, contributed $1.9 million to the qualification process, 70 percent of the total for paid circulators.

Tens of millions more were spent during the campaign to win voter approval.

If you have thoughts on any of these issues, you can comment below by clicking on the word "comment" or you can write CIRM directly via its web site and ask to have your comments made part of the public comment allowed at each CIRM board meeting.

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