Friday, May 21, 2010

Compromise on Legislation Removing CIRM Staff Cap

Legislation to remove the 50-person cap on staff at the California stem cell agency and ensure affordable access to taxpayer-funded therapies was modified Thursday with the intent of winning the support of the CIRM board of directors.

CIRM Co-Vice Chairman Art Torres and others negotiated the changes in SB1064 by state Sen. Elaine Kontominas Alquist, D-San Jose. Torres is expected to seek the endorsement of the full CIRM board at a special telephonic meeting Tuesday. The measure is expected to come before the Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday.

CIRM dearly wants the 50-person cap removed. CIRM President Alan Trounson has warned that the quality of CIRM work could suffer if it doesn't have more help. The agency has awarded more than $1 billion in grants and loans to more than 300 researchers. Another $2 billion will be handed out over the next several years. The cap is a bit of redundancy in Prop. 71 since the measure also includes a limit on CIRM's operational budget.

Eliminating the provision, however, is not a trivial legislative matter, also because of Prop. 71. The ballot initiative wrote into law a stipulation that the legislature can only make changes in CIRM with a rare, super, super-majority vote (70 percent) of both houses. As a result, both Alquist and CIRM have compromised on the legislation.

As the legislation now stands, in addition to removing the staff cap, the bill would:
  • Write into law provisions aimed at ensuring affordable access to CIRM-financed therapies. Some flexibility for exceptions would be permitted for CIRM under controlled and public processes.
  • Assure that potential profits from the taxpayer-funded therapies would go to the state's general fund. Prop. 71 was vague on where such cash would go, raising the possibility it would go to CIRM directly. Any such revenue is far, far down the road given the slow nature of research and federal approval of new therapies.
  • Require performance audits of CIRM every three years, beginning in 2010-11, at CIRM's expense
  • Permit the expansion of the grant review committee beyond 23 members and 15 scientists
  • Require leadership succession planning at the agency. Its first and only chairman, Robert Klein, has said he will be leaving his post in December. Klein has been the dominant and driving force at the agency, even leading the electoral campaign that won approval of Prop. 71 in 2004.
  • Require creation of a financial transition plan to address issues that CIRM faces when its current bond funding expires several years from now.
Earlier provisions were removed from the measure that would have changed the selection of chairman and vice chairman of the agency and altered the roles of the chairman and president. The role of the chairman is likely to redefined by the board as it deals with Klein's departure.

Much of the original measure had its origins in the findings of the Little Hoover Commission study of the stem cell agency. The commission recommended a wide range of changes at CIRM, some of which remain in the Alquist bill.

Alquist's bill declared,
“Since its inception, questions and concerns have been raised about the institute's practices, its governing board, and how the state directly and financially benefits through this sizeable investment. These criticisms divert the attention and focus of the institute to drive transformational scientific research and find cures.

“It is the intent of the Legislature to further enhance the ability of the institute to manage this investment made with public funds by addressing public concerns regarding oversight and transparency.”
The bill also said that it was intended to maximize state revenues that might result through CIRM grants.

The public may attend the CIRM board meeting on Tuesday at a number of locations throughout the state. Individuals may also comment on the bill and any action by the board. Specific addresses can be found on the agenda.

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