The state Senate is unlikely to pursue a November ballot measure imposing stricter controls on California's new stem cell agency and instead will request that the agency's oversight board implement its own new rules by mid-July, lawmakers said this week.
Senate Democrats believe the proposed measure, State Constitutional Amendment 13 by Sen. Deborah Ortiz, D-Sacramento, might clutter the November ballot and would benefit from more deliberation between lawmakers and the stem cell board.
Ortiz's proposal seeks to impose stronger conflict-of-interest rules while ensuring a financial return to the state in the form of royalties and affordable treatments for low-income residents.
SCA 13 has drawn criticism from the 29-member Independent Citizens Oversight Committee in charge of the stem cell agency. While supportive of many concepts in SCA 13, the committee and its chairman, Robert Klein II, have charged that a new ballot measure would delay the sale of bonds to pay for disease-curing research.
Ortiz had hoped the Senate would pass SCA 13 by this week, but Democrats in the upper house instead agreed to send a letter to the oversight committee insisting that the panel take action on its own by its July 12 meeting.
Ortiz said lawmakers have agreed to pursue SCA 13 if the oversight committee does not take action that resolves the Legislature's concerns. The letter being drafted would note that the Legislature could pursue SCA 13 for the June 2006 ballot, though Ortiz still wants to leave open the possibility of putting the proposal before voters in November. She said she believes the Legislature has until August to put SCA 13 on the November ballot, if necessary.
Ortiz had lined up support for SCA 13 from the 15-member Senate Republican Caucus, but she needed at least 12 Democrats to sign on to the proposal to meet a two-thirds vote requirement.
"There were a handful of (Democratic) members ready to support me on moving this off the floor," Ortiz said. "But many others requested that we hold it, position it for June '06 and in the meantime send a fairly comprehensive letter outlining the policy concerns and acknowledging a desire by the Democratic caucus to move this forward in the future."
Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, D-Oakland, said last week after a lengthy caucus meeting that Senate Democrats were in support of SCA 13, but he said there were strategic concerns about placing it on the November ballot.
Ortiz described those concerns as "mainly, how we can anticipate the messages that will be conveyed in the election and whether our resources, time and messaging should be prioritized to defeat initiatives problematic to Democrats."
Other members of the caucus spoke publicly against SCA 13 last week. Sens. Joe Dunn, D-Santa Ana, and Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough, criticized the proposed ballot measure for giving stem cell research critics more opportunities to block the sale of bonds. The agency already faces legal hurdles from lawsuits filed by abortion opponents.
"I believe the best approach to resolving the legitimate issues raised by Senetor Ortiz is through discussions with the ICOC members themselves," Dunn said Tuesday. "I'm confident we can reach progress that way. If not, the Legislature always has the option of moving forward with SCA 13 on the June or November '06 ballots."
Voters last year authorized $3 billion in bonds for stem cell research when they approved Proposition 71 to establish the Institute for Regenerative Medicine. The initiative stated that the Legislature could not introduce legislation affecting the stem cell agency for three years, but Ortiz worked around that restriction by proposing a constitutional amendment that would go before the voters.
Ortiz has disputed that the ballot initiative would slow the sale of bonds, citing a letter from the state treasurer's bond attorneys that says the initiative would have no impact.
The stem cell institute issued a statement Wednesday from Klein: "We look forward to reviewing the letter and have benefitted greatly from the input of Sens. Perata, Ortiz, Dunn, Speier and their staffs, among others."
Ortiz said she hopes SCA 13 will ultimately result in protections for the state, regardless of whether that happens through the oversight committee or the ballot. Ortiz was a major proponent of Proposition 71 and helped initiate the stem cell agency idea by once proposing a similar plan in the Legislature.
David Serrano Sewell, an ICOC member and advocate for patients with multiple sclerosis or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, called Ortiz "a friend" of the stem cell cause and said she has raised legitimate issues for the committee to consider.
He said he has been concerned about anything that would potentially slow the bond money and feels a November ballot measure could be a distraction.
Serrano Sewell sits on a new ICOC subcommittee devoted to dealing with the Legislature and expects the stem cell panel to take some action on regulations by its July meeting. Klein said that subcommittee will meet Monday to discuss changes in regulations.
"She has had a profound influence on the committee," Serrano Sewell said. "We were going to make these changes, but if we have this (Ortiz proposal) out there, we're more motivated to do it. The issues she has raised are important."
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