Saturday, May 26, 2012

A Look at the 'Son of CIRM' Proposal on the June California Ballot

In the last couple of weeks, two well-respected Los Angeles Times columnists have visited what might be called the "Son of CIRM" initiative on the June ballot in California. It is aimed at fighting cancer by spending $800 million or so annually on research with the money coming from a $1-a-pack tax on cigarettes.

One of the columnists, Michael Hiltzik, said the measure, Proposition 29, is another example of why California is a world leader in "paving the road to hell with good intentions." The other writer, George Skelton, said,
"Prop. 29 would increase cancer research. Reduce smoking. Save lives. Hurt the lying tobacco companies. Good plan."
In his work at the Times, Hiltzik deals primarily with business and financial news. He has written from time to time critically about the $3 billion California stem cell agency.  Skelton is a longtime observer of the Califorrnia political scene and has been around since Pat Brown was governor.

In a column slated for publication Sunday, Hiltzik said that the drafters of the cancer measure closely examined Proposition 71, which created the stem cell agency in 2004, and "managed to reproduce the earlier measure's worst features."

He said the Proposition 71 "retired the trophy for doing the wrong thing in the wrong way for what sounds like the right reasons." Hiltzik wrote,
"Proposition 71, you may recall, was sold to a gullible public via candy-coated images of Christopher Reeve walking again and Michael J. Fox cured of Parkinson's. The implication was that these miracles would happen if voters approved a $3-billion bond issue for stem cell research. Who could be against that? 
 "As it turned out, the stem cell measure created an unwieldy bureaucracy and etched conflicts of interest into the state Constitution. By last count about 85% of the $1.3 billion in grants handed out by the program, or some $1.1 billion, has gone to institutions with representatives on the stem cell board. The program is virtually immune to oversight by the Legislature or other elected officials. For these reasons and others, it has grappled with only mixed success with changes in stem cell science and politics that have called its original rationale into question."
Hiltzik continued,
"Proposition 29, similarly, places most spending from the tobacco tax in the hands of a nine-member board that must comprise one cardiovascular physician affiliated with a California academic medical center; the chancellors of UC Berkeley, UC San Francisco and UC Santa Cruz; two representatives of lobbying groups devoted to tobacco-related illness (including one who has been treated for such a disease); and three representatives from National Cancer Institute-designated cancer centers in the state. There are 10 of the latter, including five UC campuses and the City of Hope. Plainly, every member of the board will represent an employer that thinks it's in line for some of the money."
Skelton took a different approach on May 14. Using the words of a federal judge, he lambasted the tobacco industry for its "a certified history of deception, distortion and lying. And let's not forget fraud and racketeering."

Skelton dealt with the current TV ads being aired in California against the initiative. They criticize the measure for its conflicts of interest and also say that the money would be spent out of state.

Skelton wrote,
"The anti-29 side is hitting this hard: that the research money generated in California could be spent out of state. And the politest thing possible to say about that claim is that it's disingenuous. It's stretching something that's conceivable into a virtual certainty."
Skelton continued,
"The anti-29 camp charges that (the structure of the board) would allow a conflict of interest in awarding contracts. But there are state laws that protect against such conflicts.
"Anyway, the tobacco crowd can't have it both ways: complaining that the money could be spent outside California and also griping when the system is set up to practically guarantee that it will be spent in California."
Our take:
Ballot box budgeting – which is at the heart of both the stem cell and cancer initiatives -- is one of the reasons that California is staggering from one year to the next in a perennial financial mess. Initiatives also sometimes create nasty blowback that can damage the effort that they ostensibly serve. Such is the case with the California stem cell agency, which suffers from management and other minutia embedded in Proposition 71 that is virtually politically impossible to change.

Hiltzik wrote,
"Gov. Brown's latest budget proposal calls for cuts of $1.2 billion in Medi-Cal and $900 million in CalWorks (a relief program for families with children) and steep cuts in financial aid for college students and in court budgets. The University of California and Cal State systems are becoming crippled by 20 years of cutbacks in state funding, leading to soaring tuition charges. Tobacco-related illnesses create some of the burden on Medi-Cal and other public healthcare programs, yet a minimal portion of Proposition 29 revenue, if any, would go to helping taxpayers carry that burden. 
"With the overall state budget gap approaching $16 billion, how can anyone make the case for diverting a huge chunk of $800 million a year in new revenue to long-term scientific research, whether in California or not? Even if you believe that case can be made, the proper place to make it is in the Legislature, where all these demands on the budget can be weighed and balanced against one another — not at the ballot box, where the only choice is to spend it the way the initiative's drafters choose or not to raise it at all."
The California Stem Cell Report agrees wholeheartedly.

(A personal disclosure: I worked for Skelton when he was bureau chief for United Press International in Sacramento some decades ago and consider him a friend. I am also acquainted with Hiltzik but have not known him as long. I hold both men in high regard.)

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