Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Dark Side of Financing Stem Cell Research

Every day of the year, the California stem cell agency is racking up “hidden” costs of about $192,000. By the time CIRM gives away its allotted $3 billion, those “hidden” costs will soar to about $600,000 a day.

The expenses are the dark side of paying for scientific research with borrowed money – in this case California state bonds. That's what CIRM uses to pay the hundreds of researchers it is backing. The mechanism was set up five years ago, when voters approved Prop. 71, which created CIRM.

The cost of the bonds – interest on the borrowed money – is rarely, if ever, seen in CIRM's public documents. That's not much different, however, than other state agencies which use bond financing, such as the University of California. But the cost of state borrowing is attracting increased attention because of the state's $21 billion budget gap and draconian cuts in some areas of state services. Students at UC campuses are being forced to accept 32 percent tuition hikes at the same time CIRM is giving UC scientists $471 million.

Scores of stories have appeared in the last several weeks about the impact of borrowing on California's financial health. But a column by George Skelton of the Los Angeles Times caught our attention today. He focused on warnings by state Treasurer Bill Lockyer, the man who orchestrates the sale of state bonds. Skelton wrote,
“The state's credit card is about maxed out, the veteran Democratic office-holder warns. Payments on bond borrowing are becoming uncomfortably high, crowding out funds for universities, healthcare, parks -- and all the other government services being slashed these days.”
Skelton quoted Lockyer as saying the Golden State is “paying substantially more than Third World countries, er, emerging markets” for interest on its bonds.

That's because California has the lowest bond rating of any state in this country. Every $1 billion in bonds costs taxpayers $70 million a year, Skelton said. That translates to about $192,000 a day for the $1 billion in grants that CIRM has now approved.

Meanwhile the state has not kept up with its financial binging. Since 1999, the overall cost of interest on state bonds has skyrocketed 143 percent. General fund revenue, which pays those costs, has grown only 22 percent.

What does this sorry mess mean for CIRM? Probably the most serious impact is a less than warm environment in the Capitol should the stem cell agency ask lawmakers to remove the 50-person cap on the CIRM staff, which it seems likely to do. To win the required 70 percent approval from lawmakers, CIRM is likely to have to compromise on other proposals that it may not fancy.

The stem cell agency is only a flyspeck in the state's fiscal muddle. But it serves as an illustration of some of the state's more dubious political practices. One of which is ballot box budgeting – enactment of initiatives and approval of bonds with little attention to the long-term consequences.

However, unless something exceedingly unusual pops up, CIRM will continue with its programs, using borrowed money. CIRM's opponents may find fodder in all the concern about state borrowing. But even CIRM's most adamant supporters should understand the true cost of the effort to turn stem cells into cures.

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