What is it about embryonic stem cell research that turns politicians into courtiers? Bring up Big Pharma, and the anti-greed rhetoric soars. HMOs? Just try to shut them up about heartless corporate bean-counters. Yet even though the same get-rich, money-talks ethos drives Big Biotech, government leaders trip over each other to grant its policy agendas carte blanche.
Case in point: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
In 2004, the first full year of his governorship, Proposition 71 asked voters to establish the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) and authorize borrowing $300 million annually to pay scientists to conduct embryonic stem cell and therapeutic cloning research. At the time, the state was bleeding arterial red ink. Yet despite the fiscal crisis, the then-popular governor – elected only the year before on a plank of strict fiscal responsibility – gave his enthusiastic endorsement to 71 even though it added $6 billion, when interest is included, to California’s burgeoning bond debt.
Ever since, the CIRM has been mired in controversy – including charges of conflicts of interest, and shameless executive pay raises. And proving the old adage about the ease of spending other people’s money, earlier this year, the CIRM shelled out $271 million – not for research into cures – but to help finance construction of plush biotech research centers.
And what was Schwarzenegger doing as the CIRM bought Cadillac buildings on California citizens’ credit card? Rather than chide the administrators to spend the people’s borrowed money more prudently, the governor instead enthusiastically applauded the agency’s opulence in a CIRM press release.
And now comes the cruelest cut of all; the veto of Democratic state Sen. Sheila Kuehl’s SB1565, which would have forced the CIRM to keep Proposition 71’s campaign promise to help the poor by, as a Senate committee analysis put it, guaranteeing “uninsured Californians access to any drug that is, in whole or in part, the result of research funded by the CIRM.”
Standing bitterly against SB1565 was Robert Klein, the head of CIRM. As it became clear that the bill had broad support, Klein nastily attacked Kuehl on the national public blog, Daily Kos, writing, “Either Kuehl is ignorant on the science, or mindlessly buying into the Republican anti-cures messaging from the Catholic Church, or playing dumb in a craven attempt to get Republican votes to back her legacy as a defender of the poor.”
Klein’s personal attack against the popular Kuehl set off a firestorm, leading to his resignation from a private stem cell lobbying outfit (but alas, not from the CIRM). But that didn’t mean that CIRM insiders had given up the fight. Thus, it came as little surprise when Schwarzenegger revived his most famous movie role and “terminated” SB1565, claiming incongruously that it “does nothing to advance the will of over 7 million voters,” when precisely the opposite – assuring access for the poor to CIRM-facilitated treatments – was clearly part of the package voters thought they bought when passing Proposition 71.
Given the governor’s constant harping about the crucial importance of bipartisanship, the veto is ironic. Talk about a bipartisan measure! SB1565 passed the Senate unanimously and by an overwhelming 64-7 in the Assembly. Other than naming freeways after dead luminaries, it is rare to find such agreement in the ideologically divided California Legislature.
In backing the CIRM’s fiscal profligacy and giving the back of his hand to the poor and the ill through his veto, Schwarzenegger made a joke of his reputation as a fiscal conservative and bipartisan consensus builder. How sad that the once mighty Arnold, who came to Sacramento vowing to smash boxes, has instead assumed the role of a mere industry retainer.
Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow in Human Rights and Bioethics at the Discovery Institute (www.discovery.org) and a special consultant to the Center for Bioethics and Culture. (www.thecbc.org).