Stem cell squabble in Missouri endangers $40 million
By Matt Franck and Rachel Melcer, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 30, 2006
JEFFERSON CITY - Nearly $40 million once set aside by Missouri to support life science research and commercialization could soon become a casualty of the state's battle over the legality of embryonic stem cell research.
Over the objections of Gov. Matt Blunt, the Missouri House has opted to not include the money in its version of the budget passed earlier this month. Now, many question if the Senate will restore the funds, raised from the state's tobacco settlement.
Critics of the spending fear that a portion of the money could fund embryonic stem cell research, which some equate with abortion. Those fears are based on the possibility that voters might opt to protect the stem cell research through a ballot initiative this fall.
"There's just a real ethical cloud over this issue right now," said Rep. Jim Lembke, R-South St. Louis County, who is among those who pushed to remove the life sciences money from the budget.
But those who support the state's biotech industry say the spending has needlessly been entangled with the stem cell debate. They say the $38.5 million not only would boost the state's economy, but speed advances in agriculture, medicine and the environment.
"The opportunity is enormous," said Roger Mitchell, the governor's appointee to head the board that would dole out the money.
The spending dispute centers on a 2003 law that earmarked 25 percent of the state's tobacco settlement money to the Life Sciences Trust Fund beginning in July. To steer clear of controversy, the law stipulated that none of the money could be used for projects involving "abortion services, human cloning, or prohibited human research."
Abortion opponents say they were satisfied with the restriction. But they say the ballot initiative on stem cells changes all that.
The proposed constitutional amendment not only would protect certain forms of embryonic stem cell research, it would prevent the state from withholding research money to support legal forms of research.
Lembke and others fear that if that amendment were to pass, restrictions on how to spend the tobacco money could be invalidated. To avoid such a conflict, the House opted to spend the $38.5 million on other parts of the Missouri budget.
That approach is at odds with the governor, whose budget request called for the money to be spent on life sciences research. Blunt, a Republican, has differed with many members of the Republican-led Legislature by supporting the ballot initiative to protect stem cell research.
Spence Jackson, Blunt's communications director, says the governor sees no legal conflict between the tobacco settlement money and the proposed amendment.
The governor convened a life sciences research board in January to begin thinking about how best to spend the money, said Mike Mills, deputy director of the Department of Economic Development.
The life science funds would be distributed to non-profit institutions throughout the state, with 80 percent earmarked to build research capacity -- and one-fifth of that dedicated to work on tobacco-related illness. The remaining 20 percent would help researchers translate their scientific discoveries into commercial products.
Those who back the spending say the state funds would further support money already invested in life sciences by private philanthropies and universities
"We're poised to have an incredible surge forward in life science research . . . and make good use of this money," said Mitchell, who is dean emeritus of the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources at the University of Missouri at Columbia.
Kelly Gillespie, executive director of the Missouri Biotechnology Association, said he's frustrated that the conversation has centered on embryonic stem cell research, rather than on the many other areas of life sciences research.
Gillespie would like lawmakers to agree on a compromise in which the money this year only would be spent on plant sciences, or other life science research unrelated to stem cells.
The proposed amendment would not restrict lawmakers from earmarking appropriations for specific types of research, said Donn Rubin, chairman of the Missouri Coalition for Lifesaving Cures, which drafted the measure. He said lawmakers are needlessly confusing the issues.
"They're willing to let perhaps the greatest opportunity for economic development go by the wayside, because they are exclusively focused on a narrow ideological issue," he said.
But Senate Appropriations Chairman Chuck Gross, R-St. Charles, said the issue isn't that simple. He said the Senate will need to look closely at the original intent of the law that created the life science fund, then determine how the law might interact with a constitutional amendment.
Many say senators are unlikely to restore the money, because doing so would require them to pull funding from other programs.
Rubin said the state's biotechnology industry has waited too long for the tobacco settlement money to materialize.
"We've already seen a delay of nearly half a decade in investing in our infrastructure," Rubin said. "To continue to delay it further is not a wise decision for our state's economy."
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