PD Editorial: No on 14: It’s time for stem cell agency to stand on its own

We didn’t oppose stem-cell research in 2004, and we don’t oppose it now. Our objection is to ballot-box budgeting.|

In 2004, California voters agreed to borrow $3 billion to bankroll a stem-cell research program dedicated to seeking cures for cancer, Alzheimer’s and other debilitating diseases.

TV ads featured Michael J. Fox, who has Parkinson’s, and the late Christopher Reeve, who was paralyzed in an equestrian accident.

Sixteen years later, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine is still looking for breakthroughs. Some of its most promising discoveries have advanced to clinical trials, and two cancer treatments have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

But the startup money has been spent, and the institute is asking voters to borrow another $5.5 billion to sustain its research.

That, in a nutshell, is Proposition 14 on the Nov. 3 ballot.

The Press Democrat opposed Proposition 71, the 2004 initiative that created the institute and authorized $3 billion in bond financing at a time when the George W. Bush administration was restricting federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research.

We didn’t oppose stem-cell research then, and we don’t oppose it now.

Our objection was to ballot-box budgeting. That’s an even more acute concern today, with millions of Californians out of work and the state struggling to fulfill its most basic obligations in the face of historic budget deficits caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Is stem-cell research more important than education? Transportation? Safety net programs?

There isn’t an easy answer, and that’s the problem with budgeting by ballot initiative. Voters must say “yes” or “no” without an opportunity to weigh the relative value of competing priorities, with no ability to adjust to unexpected situations such as the pandemic and, in the case of the Institute for Regenerative Medicine, limited legislative oversight for a quasi-public agency that has been the subject of conflict-of-interest concerns.

The biggest recipients of research funding include the University of California and Stanford University, and supporters say their work could bend the curve on rising health care costs.

In addition to new borrowing, institute watcher David Jensen noted in a Capitol Weekly article, Proposition 14 would expand the program’s focus to include mental health, “therapy delivery,” personalized medicine, “aging as a pathology” and loosely defined “vital research opportunities.”

The initiative also adds six more board members, bringing it to an unwieldy 35, and it would limit how state lawmakers could appropriate any royalties generated by the institute’s work.

So far, however, royalties have fallen far short of optimistic suggestions that the state could collect $1 billion over 35 years for its investment in medical research. Royalties still could reach stratospheric levels, but so far, the state has received about $460,000.

By comparison, debt service is about $200 million a year for Proposition 71, according to the state’s nonpartisan legislative analyst, and Proposition 14 would add an additional $260 million a year in interest payments. That money comes from the state’s general fund.

After 16 years, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine is well established, and its successes should allow it to secure other sources of funding, including federal funding as the Bush-era restrictions have been lifted. The state, meanwhile, is struggling to balance its books, and it wouldn’t be wise to take on more debt at this time. The Press Democrat recommends a no vote on Proposition 14.

You can send a letter to the editor at letters@pressdemocrat.com.

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