Thursday, August 02, 2012

Stem Cell Blowback from Proposition 71

Proposition 71 last week once again stood in the way of action by the $3 billion California stem cell agency.

This time it was a bit of minutia embedded in state law that prevented the agency's governing board from going forward. The result is that the board will have to hold another meeting in August to approve matters that need to be acted on in a timely fashion.

The minutia involves the supermajority quorum requirement for the board, the percentage of board members needed to conduct business legally. Proposition 71, the 10,000-word ballot initiative that created the agency in 2004, stipulates that 65 percent of the 29 members of the board be present for action.

Here is what happened: Late last Thursday afternoon, CIRM directors were moving fast after a long day of dealing with $151 million in research awards. But as they attempted to act on proposed changes in the agency's important intellectual property rules, one of the board members left the meeting, presumably to catch a flight. The result was that the meeting quickly ended after it was decided to deal with the IP proposal and another matter during a telephonic meeting this month.

The quorum problem has plagued the CIRM board since its inception, although the situation has eased since J.T. Thomas, a Los Angeles bond financier, was elected chairman in 2011. A few years back, the board also changed its rules to allow a limited number of board members to participate in meetings by telephone, reducing the pressure on board members to physically attend meetings.

The obvious solution would be to change the quorum to 50 percent, a reasonable standard. However, the board is legally barred from doing that. To make the change would require a super, supermajority vote, 70 percent of each house of the state legislature and the signature of the governor. That is another bit that is embedded in state law, courtesy of Proposition 71. To attempt to win a  70 percent legislative vote would involve a political process that could be contentious and also involve some horse-trading that the stem cell agency would not like to see.

Why does the 65-percent quorum requirement exist? Normally, one would think such internal matters are best left to the governing board itself. It is difficult to know why former CIRM Chairman Bob Klein and his associates wrote that requirement into law. But it does allow a minority to have effective veto power over many actions by the governing board.

Of course, there is another way to look at the problem: CIRM board members could change their flights and stick around until all the business is done. But that would ignore the reality that all of them are extremely busy people and have schedules that are more than full.

All of this goes to one of the major policy issues in California -- ballot box budgeting and the use of initiatives that are inflexible and all but impossible to change, even when the state is in the midst of a financial crisis in which the poor, the elderly and school children are the victims. One California economist has called the situation "our special hell."

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