Cooperation or Obstruction?  California Counts Votes on Paralysis Cure

By Don C. Reed

What could be better than bipartisan cooperation, Democrats and Republicans working together for the common good—does not the eagle need two wings to fly?

Sadly, today’s Republican leader appears to think otherwise:  opposing all things Democrat. The “new and improved” GOP seems barely willing to stand with Dems for the Pledge of Allegiance.  I can almost hear Tea Party-ites grumble, “We don’t support Big Government!”

There are honorable exceptions, of course. In California we will miss David Dreier, a moderate Republican who championed embryonic stem cell research. I honor his service and wish him well. But he is retiring now. And of course Arnold Schwarzenegger fought hard for environmental protections, as well as stem cell research.

But it cannot be denied that the Republican party has changed, and not for the better. Even on matters where once they agreed with Democrats, they now seem compelled to oppose.

Example: paralysis research once seemed an issue on which everyone agreed. In 2004 and 2009, every Democrat and almost every Republican (all but one) in the California Assembly and Senate voted to renew the Roman Reed Spinal Cord Injury Research Act of 1999.

But with budget problems, the program named after my son was approved—but without money.

Naturally we had to find a way to fund it.

Since most Republicans take a “no new taxes” pledge, (and every new tax needs a 2/3 majority, thanks to Proposition 13) there was no help from the general fund.

So, in 2011, Assemblymember Mike Wiechowski (D-Fremont) led an effort to fund the research by a $3 traffic ticket increase, car crash being a major cause of paralysis. The bill passed two committee hearings before being shot down in Appropriations.

In 2012, we tried again, Assembly Bill 1657, for just a smaller increase. Once more, we passed the Public Safety Committee and the Health committee—and faced a tough struggle in Appropriations. Traffic tickets cost a lot already, and some people cannot afford to pay them. These are reasonable objections.

But what other choice did we have, except to let the research die?

Committee Chair Felipe Fuentes had previously opposed this method of funding. But he weighed the benefits against the negatives, and said:

“Let it go through for just the one dollar.”

This act of leadership and vision may turn out to be the most significant boost medical research has had in years. I have been following paralysis cure attempts since my son’s accident in 1994, and the science is finally coming together, coalescing around a practical cure– but only if we can locate the funds.

AB 1657 passed Appropriations on a 12-5 vote.  Democrats said yes; Republicans said no.

Now, on the main floor of the Assembly, we faced a larger vote.

It was early morning. From where I sat in the free skybox section reserved for citizens to watch their government in action, I could look over the railing, to see a floor full of action.

Every member had a desk, computer, and two buttons to press, one for yes and one for no: life or death for bills like ours.

On the wall were two large black electronic scoreboards, double rows of the members’ names, and beside each one two dots, connected to those magic buttons: one for yes, and one for no…

At 10:00 the hearing began. Assembly Speaker Pro Tempore Fiona Ma gaveled the meeting into order; we stood for the Pledge of Allegiance, especially meaningful in the center of government.

When we sat down, the fighting began.

One by one each bill was presented, briefly argued, and then the vote. Buttons were pressed: red dots lit up.

41 “Yes” votes meant the bill passed; 40 or less meant come back next year.

Hours passed. Lunchtime came and went. I dozed…

Suddenly I heard our bill numbers! AB 1657… I sat up straight.

Assemblyman Wieckowski spoke briefly—no one spoke in opposition– and Speaker Ma repeated the words: “all vote who desire to vote…all vote who desire to vote…”

The red-dot numbers began to light: changing, and climbing.

35 yes, and 19 no: it was not enough to win.

Roman and I rushed to the elevator, flew to Assemblymember Wieckowski’s office—“Just not enough people back from their lunch,” said legislative director Jeff Barbosa, fingers flying on the computer keyboard, rallying friends of the bill. “The vote will be re-taken at the end of the day,” he said.

We went back and sat some more, watching the drama of other people’s bills.

And then at last, at 5:33 in the afternoon, AB 1657 was raised once more—I held my breath,   the numbers climbed.

46 in favor, 24 opposed: votes below.

We had won the Assembly. Now we must persuade the Senate, and then Governor Brown. If we succeed, Roman may one day fulfill Christopher Reeve’s great dream and “walk away from (his) wheelchair forever.” When he does, he will not walk alone; millions will follow.

But I felt a wave of sadness. We had won– on a pure party line vote.

Every Democrat who voted (46) was for it.

Every Republican who voted (24) was against it.

More than Five million Americans* suffer the quiet agonies of paralysis, our families face crushing medical bills—and partisan politics may block the cure.

Remember in November.

Letters of support for AB 1657 are urgently requested: send to:

Voting Yes – 46—all Democrats

Alejo, Allen, Atkins, Beall, Block, Blumenfield, Bradford, Brownley, Buchanan, Butler, Campos, Carter, Cedillo, Charles Calderon, Chesbro, Davis, Dickinson, Eng, Feuer, Fong, Fuentes, Galgiani, Gatto, Hall, Hayashi, Hill, Huber, Hueso, Huffman, Lowenthal, John A. Pérez, Lara, Ma, Mitchell, Pan, Perea, Portantino, Roger Hernández, Skinner, Solorio, Swanson, Torres, V. Manuel Pérez, Wieckowski, Williams, Yamada

Voting No – 24—all Republicans

Achadjian, Beth Gaines, Bill Berryhill, Conway, Cook, Donnelly, Garrick, Gorell, Grove, Hagman, Halderman, Harkey, Jeffries, Jones, Knight, Logue, Miller, Morrell, Nestande, Nielsen, Olsen, Silva, Smyth, Wagner

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