California's $5.5 billion stem cell measure headed for passage

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California’s Proposition 14, a statewide ballot measure that provides an additional $5.5 billion in bond authority to fund stem cell research in the state appears headed for certification Dec. 11.

The ballot measure has garnered 51% of the vote, according to the California Secretary of State’s website. The Associated Press called the election Thursday night, reporting the measure had won.

Proposition 14 replenishes funding for the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, created by voters in 2004 through Proposition 71, which received a 59% voter approval rate. Proposition 71 provided $3 billion to fund stem cell research, but the majority of that initial infusion of funding has been spent, and CIRM contemplated winding down if Proposition 14 didn’t pass.

“They are making progress and the success rate has improved,” said California Treasurer Fiona Ma. “That is why I think there was the momentum to approve this initiative during the pandemic, when a lot of initiatives didn’t pass, even those that didn’t have a cost associated with them.”

California Treasurer Fiona Ma attributed likely voter approval of a $5.5 billion to fund stem cell research to medical discoveries in stem cell research.

Proposition 71 has helped fund two cancer treatments, which have been approved by the FDA, supported advancements in treatment of diabetes, “bubble boy” immune deficiency and retinitis pigmentosa, a disease that causes blindness, according to advocates. It also has helped build labs and infrastructure that put California at the forefront of stem cell research.

The treasurer’s office is the agent of sale for the bonds, but isn’t involved with the committees that track spending or oversight of the program, she said.

Proposition 14 will cost the state $260 million per year, or $7.8 billion over the next 30 years, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office. The state is still paying off the $3 billion stem cell bond from 2004.

The Citizens Financial Accountability Oversight Committee, chaired by State Controller Betty Yee, has its annual meeting Nov. 20. Yee wasn’t available for comment.

It is impressive that the stem cell research has gone from basic research to 70 clinical trials, said Mark Fischer-Colbrie, a member of the Citizens Financial Accountability Oversight Committee. “By any standard, that is pretty doggone fast," he said. "This is pretty exciting. I think there is huge economic benefit to California and huge public benefit associated with it.”

CIRM has taken fire for financial reporting on spending on the initial $3 billion of bond proceeds. CIRM is not overseen by the governor and the Legislature like other state agencies. It’s primary oversight is from a 29-member governing board.

But Fischer-Colbrie, who joined the CFAOC committee a year ago, said there has been a tremendous amount of transparency, whether it's related to fiscal activities and strategy, but also in audits.

The committee that Fischer-Colbrie sits on meets annually and is tasked with reviewing the finances overall, elements around financial controls and reviewing the state audits.

“There are opportunities to review the progress and overall activities and add in additional requirements if they are deemed to be necessary,” he said. “I think overall we are pretty excited about the opportunities and benefit for California related to this new initiative given the success of the 70 human trials; and the ability in a relatively short amount of time to help 4,000 patients in the clinical trials.”

In addition to the committee that Fischer-Colbrie is a member of, there are also separate committees, one of which has oversight of the grant process, he said. “We are just one small part of the whole CIRM public oversight review.”

He considers the bond support significant, particularly because funding from the federal government through the National Institute of Health has not been as robust as what people think. The additional monies will help accelerate the research and develop therapeutics, he said.

Real estate investor Robert Klein, who drafted the original measure and became CIRM’s first chairman put out a release Thursday announcing a win on the measure and thanking everyone who voted for it.

“Yes, on Proposition 14 was outspent by a majority of the other measures on the ballot, but from day one, our mission has been too important to give up,” he said in a statement. “This measure would not have overcome these challenges without the patient advocacy community that refused to take no for an answer and continued to fight for their loved ones, patient advocates, along with the empathy, foresight and continuing commitment of California voters have delivered a victory for YES on Proposition 14 and secured funding to improve or save the lives of millions.”

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