Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Negotiations Underway on CIRM Reform Legislation; Staff Cap Removal Included

Legislation to remove the 50-person cap on staff at the $3 billion California stem cell agency comes before the organization's directors next Tuesday morning as negotiations on the bill appear to be reaching a critical stage.

The proposal must clear the state Senate by May 27, or CIRM will have to wait a year to make another attempt. That would pose difficulties for the agency, which is trying to administer more than $1 billion in grants to more than 300 recipients. CIRM President Alan Trounson warned earlier this year that the quality of CIRM work will suffer without the ability to hire more staff.

Removal of the cap is part of a bill, SB1064 by Sen. Elaine Kontaminas Alquist, D-San Jose, chair of the Senate Health Committee. While CIRM would like to see the cap removed, other provisions in the current measure are not viewed with pleasure by the agency. They include an effort to guarantee affordability of taxpayer-financed stem cell therapies and proposals to improve transparency and management at the five-year-old organization, which is unprecedented in state history.

In the case of the staff cap, CIRM is hoist on a petard of its own making. The cap was written into law by CIRM Chairman Robert Klein and others in an effort to defuse potential arguments against Prop. 71 that it would create a huge new state bureaucracy. Also written into law by Prop. 71 was a unusual requirement that makes it nearly impossible to change such things as the staff cap. Such alterations require a rare, super, super-majority vote of 70 percent of both houses and the signature of the governor. That means that CIRM will have to do some horse-trading to get what it wants.

CIRM Vice Chairman Art Torres, a former state legislator and head of the state Democratic Party, is leading the closed-door negotiations on a possible compromise on the bill. On Tuesday, he hopes to be able to recommend that the CIRM board support a revised bill. In response to a query on Monday, he told the California Stem Cell Report via email that no final agreement had been reached on the legislation. Torres said that the negotiators were awaiting specific language. He said it is possible that no agreement will have been reached by next Tuesday. Another source said, “We're hopeful to have something soon.”

The legislation is now before the Senate Appropriations Committee. If the bill clears that committee, it will go to the Senate floor.

The staff of the committee this week released its analysis of the bill. Among other things, the analysis by committee consultant Katie Johnson said the bill would create additional costs ranging from $400,000 to possibly millions. The $400,000 would be for each of new performance audits of CIRM and its board of directors. The audits would be required every six years, beginning this year. The millions would come into play for additional staff salaries, although that would not affect the state's general fund. The cost would be borne by CIRM, which is financed directly by state bonds(money borrowed by the state).

Johnson wrote,
“Although CIRM is currently under the (staff) cap with 43 employees, it is reasonable that as they make more grants and further develop the loan program, more staff would be needed. CIRM's administrative expenses, including salaries, are capped at 6 percent of bond funds: 3 percent for research and research facilities, including the development, administration, and oversight of the grant making process and the operations of the working groups and an additional 3 percent for the costs of CIRM general administration. CIRM is within their administrative cap, and while paying salaries for new employees would put expenses closer to the cap, it is unlikely to exceed it.”
Members of the public who would like to tell the CIRM board what they think of the legislation will have that opportunity at a host of locations around the state. The specific sites, which range from Healdsburg to Irvine, can be found on the agenda. If you plan to attend, it would be advisable to tell CIRM in advance so there are no glitches in gaining entrance. All of the locations are open to the public by law, but some are in businesses or other locations that may not be accustomed to admitting the general public. The list of locations currently on the agenda is short and more are likely to be added in the next few days, including sites in Sacramento and San Diego.

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