Prop 14 is a proposition which would inject massive funding for the publicly-funded stem cell research organization, California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM). Stem cell funding is important to advancement in stem cell research, but when there is a lack of general transparency —given that the regulatory agency known as Independent Citizens Oversight Committee (ICOC) is internal to CIRM and, therefore, unaccountable to legislative oversight. With funding through approximately $5.5 billion in state general obligation bonds, the price tag is questionable when considering the return on such an enormous investment, especially when our state coffers have taken such a huge hit due to well...2020. The cost for taxpayers would be an additional $2.3 billion in interest (bringing the total cost to around $8 billion). It’s key to think about what key services could be funded with the $8 during times of crisis.
This funding would be allocated to funding grants from CIRM, nonprofits, and private entities within the field of stem-cell research, which is in part integrated with public universities and is technically a state-based program. In essence, public funding (i.e. our tax dollars) would be used to fund non-public entities. To add insult to injury, the bill also “appropriates General Fund moneys to pay bond debt service”—another way of saying our tax dollars will be used to pay principal and interest on the bonds on behalf of these non-public entities. Robert N. Klein II, the wealthy real estate developer who also funded the campaign for Proposition 71 (the precursor measure to Proposition 14 passed in 2004 that established California’s constitutional right to practice stem-cell research and created CIRM) is Proposition 14’s number one supporter—to the tune of $3,625,000. On top of the lack of accountability there is also a steep 70% legislative majority required for changes to the proposition, shifting the power to the state’s stem cell research institute, which is receiving the funding. This is the classic situation we see come up often where a publicly-funded bond does not directly benefit the public: it does not make sense for us to support it.
Let’s talk about why this is tricky though. We do oppose this type of public funding of private organization bonds outright typically but this organization is not exactly private. In fact, the LAO points out that about half of the funding went to public entities, meanwhile the other entities being non-profit private entities and for-profit entities little under a quarter. This is not a black and white proposition in that regard, under neoliberal economic systems the blurring of private and public has become increasingly blurred. In summary, some organizations we align with have argued that Prop 71 and by extension Prop 14 wouldn’t benefit the public good but this is not entirely clear. First of all, CIRM is in-between being a state organization and a private organization. Secondly, scientific advances mostly benefit the public good and Prop 14 works to improve upon Prop 71 by making stem cell advances more accessible for larger swathes of the population. Thirdly, as we mentioned earlier, the finding ends up going to public organizations and nonprofits for scientific advances.
However, let’s take a moment to qualify whether this is the type of public benefit California needs. Well, as a future-oriented organization we think scientific advancement is central to solving many issues. However, we also know that stem cell research is still a nascent field and is a toss-up whether one of the largest bonds we’ve seen in recent history will ever pay off. So far we have seen it hasn’t paid off nearly as much as we think qualifies to pay for itself. For instance, when we look at what benefit Prop 71 returned to the general fund after spending $3 billions of dollars it returned only $350K back to the state’s General Fund. This means after one decade of research it only paid back very minimal return and might have been a huge loss for California. Basically, stem cells haven’t proven themselves to be revolutionary as we hoped almost two decades ago when this program was started. Keep in mind that California is operating in a deficit and we also exist in similar souls crises. With that said, using the general fund for research while we are in the midst of simultaneous crises due to climate change, lack of housing, general resource deprivation, and the pandemic—it seems superfluous.
Why do we oppose this if we don’t think this is a black and white public funding of a private organization? It comes down to the lack of oversight, history of corruption, the huge bail cost (and associated interest), and the fact that we should be using the General Fund for more essential services. We should be creating bonds to make California carbon neutral, provide housing for all, and many other essential services over the gamble of scientific advances that for the most part will not provide immediate benefit.