April 16, 2007

The States and Stem Cells:
It's All Over. States, not the Federal Government, Matter

We hate to say we told you so, but we did. Stateline.org’s Christine Vestal has a story here that details recent state actions to eliminate restrictions and provide financial support for embryonic stem cell research. Meanwhile, in Washington, both House and Senate have passed bills expanding the stem cell lines that federal funds can be used to support, but without margins sufficient to override a promised Presidential veto.

While details are still fuzzy, the most substantial state action was in New York. The recently enacted state budget appropriated $100 million for stem cell research, with an additional $500 million expected to come from somewhere, possibly the conversion of a not-for-profit health insurer to for-profit status. The budget creates an Empire State Stem Cell Board inside the state Department of Health that has a funding committee, charged with managing the project review, award, and oversight processes, and an ethics committee, charged with enacting appropriate ethical standards for research. Both committees are appointed by the governor, with some number of members to be nominated by state legislative leaders. Funding is significantly less than initially proposed by Governor Eliot Spitzer--$600 million rather than $2.1 billion-- but the board’s charge seems clearly focused on stem cell research rather than the broader, economic development oriented, language in the governor’s original proposal. Additional appropriations can certainly be made to the board in later years, but a large bond issue initially proposed by the Governor was not authorized. The official language is in Part H of this bill.

Vestal also points to recent development in Iowa and Massachusetts. Iowa governor Chet Culver signed a bill repealing a 2002 ban on stem cell research, and Governor Duval Patrick of Massachusetts has asked the state’s Public Health Council to rescind regulations adopted under Governor Mitt Romney which prohibited the use of stem cell lines created for the purpose of research. An anonymous administration official quoted in this Boston Globe story indicates that Patrick intends to propose expanded state support for stem cell research in a variety of ways.

Meanwhile, both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives have passed versions of the bill they passed last year expanding the number of stem cell lines eligible for federal funding support. In neither house was the margin large enough to override a veto, so the ultimate outcome—no change in federal policy—seems clear. The rhetoric on both sides, at least in the Senate seems to have been better suited to Oprah than the self-styled world’s greatest deliberate body.Washington Post reporters Rick Weiss and Dana Milbank note a range of factual inaccuracies in the Senate debate, as well as Senators’ invoking numerous tragic illnesses experienced by themselves, family members, and constituents in support of their positions.

Both houses must now pass a reconciled version of the stem cell bill, which President Bush has promised to veto. Neither house seems likely to be able to override this veto, thus insuring that federal policy will remain unchanged. States, however, are continuing to move ahead. Expect it to be this way for a while.
Jim Fossett
AMBI/Rockefeller Institute of Government Federalism and Bioethics Initiative; (with thanks to Katie DiLello)

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