Friday, November 15, 2019

$5.5 Billion Stem Cell Ballot Measure: Questions in California but Apparently No Foot-Dragging

Some directors of the California stem cell agency this morning expressed a number of reservations about a $5.5 billion ballot initiative to stave off its financial demise, but none appeared likely to oppose the proposal 

In a special, two-hour meeting of the agency's governing board, questions were raised about provisions that would restrict the board or mandate programs, ranging from training to lab equipment. A provision to increase the size of the board from 29 to 35 was criticized and supported. A new effort to deal with the affordability of stem cell therapies was praised. But some aspects were questioned.   

The topic of the day was a complex, 30-page, proposed ballot initiative sponsored by Robert Klein, the first chairman of the agency, who has already announced changes in his proposal. More alterations appeared to be in the works as the result of today's hearing, including elimination of some language dealing with pricing. The meeting did not go into details about that subject.

In addition to requiring the state to borrow $5.5 billion for stem cell and other "vital" research, Klein's proposal would expand the scope of the agency and alter its governance. It would be required to develop and finance efforts at making stem cell research more affordable. Brain disease research would receive special attention with a dedicated $1.5 billion out of the $5.5 billion. Training programs would be mandated and expanded at community and state colleges and much more.

(The CIRM summary of the initiative can be found here. A summary by the California Stem Cell Report can be found here.)

(Here is the text of the initiative as filed in October. Here is the text of the measure with Klein's proposed changes as of Nov. 14.)

The agency began its life in 2004 with $3 billion in state bond funding, authorized by California voters through a ballot initiative.  Known formally as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine(CIRM), it is down to its last $27 million, which is devoted to a sickle cell program with the federal government. At its peak, the agency was giving away up to $300 million a year.

Today's meeting began with several of the board members declaring that the public should not perceive their questions and comments as indicating they did not support the effort to refinance the agency. Some had expressed concerns that opponents might use board comments to defeat the initiative next November. 

Steve Juelsgaard
CIRM photo
The board moved rapidly through the initiative during the morning meeting. CIRM director Steve Juelsgaard and others raised questions about the size of the board, declaring that large boards become disengaged from an enterprise. Os Stewart, who has served on the board since 2004, said he initially thought 29 members were excessive but feels differently after 15 years. 

Several members expressed concern about mandates that would tie the hands of the board. CIRM Director Francisco Prieto said, 
"The science can surprise us."
Klein told the board that "we have fundamental obligation to give the voters an idea where their money is going." He also said that the mandates do not have legal timetables.

Today's meeting was very lightly attended, according to an agency spokesman, mostly by CIRM staffers. Only one member of the public addressed the board, Don Reed, a longtime patient advocate and supporter of the board.

Questions about the measure arose publicly this month after longtime director
Jeff Sheehy
CIRM photo
Jeff Sheehy authored a 3,300-word critique of the Klein measure, declaring it amounted to "too little and too much."  At the end of today's meeting, Sheehy did not express reservations that would prevent him supporting the measure. 

Klein unofficially modified his measure this week. He has until Monday at 5 p.m. to actually file the changes with state elections officials. The official comment period for the initiative is closed. But Klein said yesterday that interested parties can send comments and suggestions to him through Saturday at this email address: 

Comments filed directly with Klein are not a public record. If a reader would like to share his/her comments with the public, please send a copy of them to the California Stem Cell Report at djensen@californiastemcellreport. We will carry them verbatim.

Here is a link to a guide to the stem cell initiative information maze, which is updated as other key information surfaces.

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