How Not to Kill a Stem Cell Program in Three Easy Steps

By Don C. Reed

Check out Alex Philippidis’s scoop article:

“The chair of California’s state Senate Health Committee, Elaine Alquist (D-San Jose) said through a spokesman… she will wait until 2010 to introduce legislation to restructure the governance and some operations of CIRM.”— “Chair of California’s Health Committee Will Wait Until 2010 to Introduce CIRM-Altering Bill”. ( BioRegion News, July 6, 2009

This is so important. Remember the Little Hoover Commission’s laundry list of changes the critics want made to the California stem cell program?

California Senator Elaine Alquist, (D-San Jose) has been considering adding some of those changes to one of her bills already in progress, probably Senate Bill 343.

However, the budget crisis currently needs her full attention. Sensibly, she is putting off her decisions on the bill to change the stem cell program.

The Senator will have time to decide which changes are worth including in her bill.

Also, we in the patient advocacy community now have time to get ready.

There is a whole laundry list of changes offered in the Little Hoover Commission Report, 84 pages of them: some are worth considering, others serve no useful purpose, a few could do actual harm–

–and one, the plan to politicize the Independent Citizens Oversight Committee (ICOC), is a poisoned apple in the lunchbox.

It would be a disaster to split the ICOC and give control over its membership to the Governor of California.

Why? Consider the Governor’s power.

We have seen the good that a champion of stem cell politics can do in that office. Time and again, Governor Schwarzenegger stood up for stem cell research in the Golden State. He supported Proposition 71 before California voted it into law; he was there for us in the grinding early years of lawsuits, even authorizing a loan of $150 million to the program, so it could begin. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has earned the thanks of a grateful nation for his steadfast support of the potentially life-saving research.

But what about an opponent?

If suggestions by the Little Hoover Commission become law, another Governor could easily undermine the world’s largest source of embryonic stem cell research funding.

Here is how it could be done.

First, remember the governing board of the California stem cell program, the Independent Citizens’ Oversight Committee? Twenty-nine members, appointed by a variety of leaders, so no single individual can run the show. At present, the Governor appoints 5 of 29 members, so that he influences the makeup of the Committee, but cannot dominate it.

But what if the Governor got to pick three-fourths of the committee?

All he or she would have to do is put opponents of research on the board of directors.

A committee with a majority of research opponents could decide to not spend the money; or, use their majority to vote to spend it on research supported by the Religious Right—or they could just say, sorry folks, California can’t afford it—and let the program die.

For this nightmare to occur, three changes would be required.

1. Make the Committee small.
2. Shorten their terms in office, so they could not become independent.
3. Allow a super-majority of the now-small committee to be chosen by the Governor.

This is exactly what the Little Hoover Commission recommends.

The following quotations are taken directly from the Little Hoover Commission Report.
They recommend the following:

1. “…Decrease the size of the board to 15 members…
2. Reduce terms to four years for all new members….
3. Allow the governor to appoint 11 (of 15—DR) members…”

Could I be worried for nothing? Quite possibly.

I love the California stem cell program.

When the meetings begin and Melissa King announces the Pledge of Allegiance, saying, “Please stand if you are able”, and we put our hands on our hearts, I feel so proud to be an American, like looking up at the statue of Liberty. And remember what is written at the base of that immortal statue, in Emma Lazarus’s immortal words?

It does not say, “Give me your strong, your wealthy, your well-established…” No. It says in words we dare not forget:

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Like a living extension of the statue’s promise, the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine, or CIRM, reveals democracy’s strength: people working together to day find a cure for suffering, assisting those who have been told, there is no hope: people like my paralyzed son Roman, and my sister Barbara, who has cancer.

Until the day comes when I cease to care about my family, I will always be proud of the CIRM, an institution dedicated to the search for cure.

Also, if I sometimes seem defensive, that might be because the California stem cell program has endured non-stop attack since its inception. The critics have come at us from every angle, hitting us in big ways and small: lawsuits tried to crush us out of existence altogether; others were semi-harassments, endless new laws tried to tie our hands, multiple audits and repetitive investigations worked diligently to find something—anything—wrong. We emerged from the numerous trials by fire just fine, but sometimes it felt like that ancient Chinese torture, the death of a thousand cuts.

And our most relentless opponent? Senator George Runner (R-CA, district 17) is a religious conservative (his website describes him and his wife Sharon Runner as founders of “Desert Christian Schools”) bitterly opposed to early stem cell research. He has been called the “virulently anti-embryonic stem cell Republican George Runner” by the Los Angeles City Beat, (March 24, 2005). Mr. Runner opposed Prop 71 since before it was voted into law, and ever since. He has authored or co-authored numerous bills (7, if memory serves) attempting to revise and re-write our stem cell program.

His most recent bill (SB 1565, vetoed by Governor Schwarzenegger) contained a provision removing California’s preference for embryonic stem cell research, and requested the Little Hoover Commission (LHC) to “study” the California stem cell program, offering ways to fix its alleged problems—including “conflict of interest, real or perceived”– by making up a new state law or laws.

His newest bill lost (as had the other six) but the LHC decided to go ahead anyway.

And who was serving on the Little Hoover Commission, when it made its decision to go ahead with its plans to change California stem cell program?

Senator George Runner’s wife, former Assemblywoman Sharon Runner.

Is that a conflict of interest, that Senator Runner’s wife helped make a decision her husband wanted? It certainly could be “perceived” as one.

What if Senator Runner, Assemblywoman Runner, and/or their ideological colleagues were in charge of the California stem cell program? Can anyone believe they would not use their power to alter what they so clearly despise?

In about six months, Senator Alquist will decide which of the Runner-inspired
Little Hoover Commission recommendations to put into her possible new law.

Some of the proposed changes may be unconstitutional.

According to California law, even if lawmakers do not like a voter initiative, they do not have the legal right to overthrow it: they may only make minor adjustments, improvements which “further the purpose” of the initiative.

The people’s voice must be respected, and the initiative process is the purest form of democracy. Prop 71 was begun by the people, not the legislators; it was debated, fought for (and against), and then we had the vote.

Only another initiative can now legally alter its purpose. Major changes—like removing the independence of the ICOC—may only be done by another initiative. Two CIRM-connected law firms stated that at least some of the LHC changes may violate California law. The LHC acknowledges that possibility.

The Little Hoover Report raises a long list of objections, many worth discussing. Certainly we can find ways to improve anything, not only the California stem cell program, but also the Little Hoover Commission, or either political party, even democracy itself. (Remember Winston Churchill’s great comment that “Democracy was the worst system of government, except for all the others–”?)

Change is a part of life. But some changes are deal-breakers, so extreme they destroy the whole purpose—like subtracting the power of the vote. Without the right to vote, and the power to uphold a vote once taken, there is no democracy.

Politicizing the ICOC is a deal-breaker: a line which must never be crossed.

If the ICOC can be made a political tool, to be used at the whim of the next governor, we lose the independence of science which was the reason for Prop 71’s existence.

Senate Majority Leader Dean Florez (D-16th district) said it best:

“…I am concerned about the Commission’s attempt to shift power over the agency to the Governor. Like the Little Hoover Commission itself, CIRM was designed to be an independent agency. Proposition 71 therefore dispersed appointment authority to the Governor, the Lieutenant Governor, the Controller, the Treasurer, the Legislature, and UC Chancellors. By concentrating appointment authority in the Governor, the Commission would undermine the careful and deliberate balance struck by Proposition 71. (emphasis added—DR) In a controversial area like stem cell research, such a change would threaten the independence that CIRM needs to ensure the success of its mission.”—Senator Dean Florez, Majority Leader, July 6, 2009

Is the CIRM against all changes, as some critics have implied?

Not at all. Every bill that has been offered to change the program has been considered by the ICOC board, and many of their better elements have been adopted. This strategy of cooperating with the legislature and implementing needful change is healthy, and should continue.

The next meeting of the ICOC legislative subcommittee, in fact, Thursday, July 16th, will be to consider the suggestions of the Little Hoover Commission. Judging by past history, it is an easy prediction that their recommendations will receive serious consideration, and some will become part of the program.

Change must be done carefully; it is seldom as simple as it looks. For instance, the LHC suggests hiring more employees by removing the 50 employee cap. However, it offers no ideas on how the new employees will be paid. The LHC must surely be aware there is a 6% limit on the amount of CIRM money that can be spent on staff, that limit having been imposed so that the maximum amount of funding can go to research. I am all in favor of hiring more folks to help with the chores, but where is the money to pay them?

The stem cell program is a triumph. Despite relentless opposition, it has done more than survive: it has thrived. It brought in more money from outside sources ($900 million in contributions) than it spent in tax dollars ($732 million); provided new jobs at a time when much of the economy is stagnant or worse: made California the stem cell research center of the world, and brought us closer to cure for chronic disease and disability.

In short, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine is doing exactly what Proposition 71 promised—and what we voters hired it to do.

We do ourselves no favors by messing with success.

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