Friday, January 10, 2014

Tobacco Tax Looms as Financial Rescue for California Stem Cell Agency

California's stem cell agency, which is facing near financial death in 2017, could be rescued by a proposed ballot initiative that could channel roughly $200 million a year to the research effort.

Frank Barbaro
OC Register photo
The measure was filed this week with state officials by attorney Frank Barbaro of Santa Ana, a major figure in Orange County Democratic politics. It appeared to be modeled after a 2012 ballot initiative to raise tobacco taxes to fund cancer research that was very narrowly defeated.

The latest proposal would increase taxes on cigarettes by about $1 a pack and raise roughly $700 million a year, based on estimates for the 2012 initiative, Prop. 29. Barbaro's proposal would set aside 30 percent of that revenue to flow directly to the stem cell agency for research into a wide range of brain disorders and “dysfunctional conditions,” including spinal cord injury, heart disease, stroke, autism, cancer and much more.

Fifty percent of the funds would go to a new California Brain Research Citizen's Oversight Committee (CBRCOC), which would consist of 11 members, of whom four would be appointed by the governor. The others would be top executives of the University of California and its campuses. The new brain research operation would be similar to that of the state stem cell agency and would be able to award grants and loans and fund buildings and equipment.

Barbaro submitted the 14-page initiative to the state attorney general's office on Monday for preparation of a title and summary. The immediate hurdle for the measure is to collect roughly 1 million signatures to qualify it for the ballot, presumably November of this year. In 2012, hiring persons to collect signatures cost anywhere from $1 for each signature to as much as $5 to $6.

The California Stem Cell Report has queried Barbaro via email for additional comment on the measure, its backers and sources of funding. We will carry his comments when they are received.

The $3 billion California stem cell agency, which subsists on money borrowed by the state, is slated to run out of cash in 2017 for new awards. It has been considering some sort of public-private effort to generate additional funding.

The 2012 tobacco tax initiative was rejected by voters by an exceedingly slim margin, 50.3 percent to 49.7 percent, a difference of less than 30,000 votes. Political gamblers are likely to bet that the latest measure would win approval next fall, although the tobacco industry is likely to mount a tough fight.

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