Senate can help reform stem cell program
California's Senate now has the choice of killing or saving a measure to provide some accountability over the state's $3 billion stem cell research institute.
If SCA 13 goes to the grave this week, remember these two names: Sens. Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough, and Joe Dunn, D-Santa Ana.
Dunn and Speier have built their reputations on consumer protection, accessible health care and open government. But Monday, they blatantly pandered to stem cell czar Robert Klein II, who orchestrated a lobbying campaign Monday against Sen. Deborah Ortiz, D-Sacramento, and her SCA 13 measure.
Ortiz's measure, among other things, would guard against public funds going to companies that secretly set up consulting and stock deals with scientists who recommend the funding.
This is not just an abstract concern.
As Dunn knows, the energy giant Enron secretly paid researchers at Harvard to churn out reports extolling the deregulation scheme that California ultimately adopted. Those conflicts came to light only after California became mired in an energy crisis Enron helped create.
Sadly, neither Speier nor Dunn had a word to say on the need to avoid similar scandals with the $3 billion stem cell institute. Instead, both senators (who have ambitions for higher office) echoed the rhetoric of Klein and his minions that Ortiz's measure would delay research and add to people's suffering.
For the record, Ortiz has worked to amend her measure so it would have no possible impact on the issuance of stem cell bonds. The state's bond counsel - Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe - confirmed that point Tuesday when it issued a memo stating: "Nothing in the proposed Section 9(a) interferes with the ability of the state to issue tax-exempt bonds."
As previously stated, we wish that Ortiz would hold off on dictating how future stem cell therapies should be licensed, the subject of Section 9(a) in her measure. If she saved that battle for another day, Klein and his network of patient advocates, biomedical companies and venture capitalists would have less ammunition.
Regardless, Ortiz's measure is serving to pressure the institute in the right direction. At Monday's meeting in Sacramento, Klein distributed proposed "policy enhancements" to deal with potential conflicts among grant reviewers and the oversight committee. One proposal would require oversight committee members to divest holdings in entities that seek funding from the institute or that have significant investments in stem cell therapies.
These eleventh-hour "policy enhancements," while not as strong as they could be, wouldn't have happened without SCA 13. For months, this page and groups such as Californians Aware, the Center for Genetics and Society, Common Cause and others have urged the institute to adopt stronger standards on potential conflicts. Oversight board members largely ignored these calls as they fought over which city would host the institute's headquarters.
Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata should resist the urge to bury Ortiz's measure. Pass it through the Senate, and then see if the institute's oversight board approves new policies at its next meeting, on July 12. If so, Ortiz may be willing to drop her measure. That would avoid the need to amend the constitution and ignite a costly election battle. A full Senate vote would give Dunn and Speier another chance to demonstrate they are true protectors of the public interest.
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