Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Gravy Train Bedfellows: Catfish Farmers and California Stem Cell Research

What do a couple of porn kings, some plumbers and bricklayers, travel agents, yacht builders and catfish farmers have in common with the $3 billion California stem cell agency?

They are all looking to ride the trillion-dollar, bailout/stimulus gravy train that is underway in Washington, D.C.

Everybody is doing it, so why not us? That's the logic.

We must, however, add a qualifier to the business about CIRM, which continues to operate amply funded despite a $40 billion budget crisis affecting other California state departments.

CIRM directors are not yet officially begging for a handout from the Obama administration. But the matter, championed by CIRM Chairman Robert Klein, is breezing through the agency. It comes up again tomorrow afternoon at a meeting of the directors Finance Subcommittee, where it is likely to be sent on with a favorable recommendation to the full board unless some board members stand against Klein.

As is often common with CIRM, the latest specifics about Klein's gravy-train proposal are being withheld from the public even though the meeting is less than 24 hours from now. (The agency's failure to provide such information is persistent, corrosive to the public trust and puts the lie to Klein's pledge of transparency and openness, but that is a subject of another item.)

Here is what we have been able to ferret out about Klein's plan to snag some of the federal goodies. He wants a federal guarantee for CIRM's $500 million biotech lending program. With such a guarantee, the size of the program could be boosted to $1 billion, Klein says. Another element is a move to improve research and development tax credits for the biotech industry. (You can find the latest, Dec. 19, 2008, discussion of this here in a CIRM transcript.) Klein may have other proposals in mind as well.

There is a logic to Klein's effort. Huge amounts of money are going out the door. Biotech ventures, not to mention stem cell research, are chronically short of cash. The industry has high promise, according to conventional wisdom. If you are running a business, it behooves you to grab the cash when you can. Next year, the door will be closed.

But the federal largess comes with a cost, maybe not to CIRM but to the nation as a whole. Many competing demands exist, some for worthwhile efforts that will die if they do not receive help. Klein's proposals may well be be competing with other calls for assistance from California state government or cities and counties, not to mention $1 billion promised by President Obama for autism research.

The financial pie is, in fact, limited. CIRM is well-funded and can progress quite smartly without siphoning off federal assets that might be better used. Moreover, the biotech industry has an army of lobbyists who are more than capable of carrying their own water without the assistance of CIRM, which is a minuscule player in Washington anyway.

The Wall Street Journal today reported on the impact of the competition for federal dollars. It said,
"...(T)he unprecedented largess granted through the $825 billion economic-stimulus bill may bind Obama's hands later. The growing deficit will make it difficult, if not impossible, to fulfill spending promises that total hundreds of billions of dollars....This burst of spending so early in his presidency could also hobble Mr. Obama politically in the years to come as the country's soaring budget deficit demands cutbacks in social programs and even potential tax increases."
I may be old-fashioned, but under such circumstances, I think CIRM should remove itself from the hand-out line and get back to the doing the best it can with its already ample resources. As another president remarked at his inauguration 48 years ago,
"Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country."
(As for those porn kings, catfish farmers and others mentioned earlier, here are couple of links to them in stories in the Los Angeles Times and New York Times as well as a Phoenix, Ariz., radio station. The porn kings request seems to a bit of humor, highlighting the unsavory nature of the gravy train bandwagon.)


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 (info@cirm.ca.gov) and ask to have your comments made part of the public comment allowed at each CIRM board meeting.

The public can participate in the meeting tomorrow afternoon at teleconference locations in La Jolla, Berkeley, San Carlos, Palo Alto, Irvine and two in San Francisco. Addresses can be found on the agenda.

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