Friday, April 30, 2010

Stem Cell Agency Seeking Legislative Removal of 50-person Staff Cap

Directors of the California stem cell agency yesterday decided to work with a state legislator on a proposal that would give CIRM much needed relief from an ill-considered limit that caps the agency's staff at 50.

Previously CIRM was moving towards an effort to kill the legislation, at least for the next year or so, because of other provisions it found less than agreeable.

The cap on CIRM staff was written into law by Prop. 71, which created the $3 billion stem cell research effort in 2004. The limit was an obvious attempt to defuse opposition arguments that the ballot initiative would create another large state bureaucracy. However, in a bit of redundancy, the measure also contained a spending limit on administrative expenses.

The personnel limit left CIRM with a staff about the size of that of a 24/7 Burger King to monitor currently more than 300 researchers and more than $1 billion in grants. Another $2 billion will be going out the door over the next four years or so.

Several months ago, CIRM President Alan Trounson warned directors that the quality of the agency's work could suffer as a result. State Sen. Elaine Kontaminas Alquist, D-San Jose, subsequently introduced legislation aimed at reforming CIRM and ensuring affordable access to taxpayer-financed therapies. The bill, SB1064, also would eliminate the 50 person cap.

Yesterday's action by directors marks the first time that CIRM has moved from adamant and successful opposition to any legislation that would change Prop. 71. The agency has had a sometimes stormy relationship with some lawmakers (see here, here and here) but has gradually moved away from abrasive tactics.

John M. Simpson, stem cell project director for Consumer Watchdog of Santa Monica, Ca., praised CIRM's new position. In an email, he said,
"Instead of the usual stiff arm extended toward the Legislature from within circled wagons, Art Torres is drawing on his political skills to negotiate a deal that satisfies everyone. It's about time.”
CIRM Vice Chairman Torres, former head of the state Democratic Party and a longtime legislator, told directors that he and others were negotiating with Alquist to come up with legislation that would be acceptable to CIRM and remove the personnel cap. Torres said that he was working to add a provision for compensation for CIRM board members who are patient advocates and who serve on various CIRM working groups. The provision would provide pay for days attending the meetings as well as days preparing for them.

The patient advocate directors, seven in all not counting Torres and Klein, are critical to CIRM's operations because many of the other directors have conflicts of interest that prevent them voting on some matters. Some of the patient advocates, such as UC Regent Sherry Lansing, also have significant conflicts, leaving only about four of five relatively free to vote on almost any matter. The patient advocates, however, can lose salary from their jobs when they take time off for CIRM affairs. Such is not the case with other directors, such as medical school deans and executives, who also have staff that they can use to assist on CIRM matters.

Enactment of a bill is not a foregone conclusion. The CIRM legislation requires a 70 percent vote of both houses of the legislature, an unusual and exceedingly difficult hurdle to clear. It effectively ensures minority control over any changes and was written into Prop. 71 by CIRM Chairman Robert Klein, who plans to step down from his post in December.

It is unclear at this point what other provisions will remain in the bill. Torres said he hopes to conclude negotiations in about three weeks.

Simpson noted Torres' legislative effectiveness and deep contacts in Sacramento. “Kudos to the politically savvy vice chairman,” Simpson said. At the directors meeting yesterday, Torres was careful to note that other directors were involved in lobbying legislators including co-Vice Chair Duane Roth, who has Republican contacts; Lansing, a well-connected former head of a Hollywood studio; Michael Goldberg, a venture capitalist, and Leeza Gibbons, an Alzheimers patient advocate and Hollywood celebrity.

Simpson indirectly noted that salaries at CIRM, among the highest in state government, could provide a public relations problem in the State Capitol, where lawmakers have already made draconian budget cuts. In a reference to Torres' salary, Simpson said, “At $225K a year given the state's financial crisis, they're still paying him too much.”

Our take? We disagree with Simpson about Torres' salary but do think that CIRM salaries, whose range tops out at $508,750 for the CIRM president, pose a perception problem that needs to be carefully handled by CIRM.

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