Stem-cell bill's defeat biggest botch this year by Assembly

April 20, 2005|By Jay Hancock

WHAT WAS THE General Assembly's biggest anti-business goof this year?

Was it the Wal-Mart tax, which would effectively require the giant retailer to devote more dollars to employee medicine or pay a penalty to Comptroller William Donald Schaefer?

Was it the minimum-wage bill, which would raise the floor for Maryland pay to $6.15 an hour, $1 more than the federal standard? The defeat of liability-lawsuit reform? Strike three on approving slot machines?

Nope. The biggest legislative blow to Maryland's economy was the Assembly's failure to approve $23 million in funding for embryonic stem-cell research because of ethical objections to destroying tiny human embryos to obtain the cells.

Embryonic stem cells can be induced to develop into numerous kinds of body cells and might allow undreamed-of advances in treating spinal-cord injuries, Alzheimer's disease, diabetes and other ailments, scientists believe. (Full disclosure: My dad has Parkinson's disease, which researchers say might also respond to embryonic stem-cell treatment.)

The defeat of the Maryland stem-cell bill, if allowed to stand, might be ruefully remembered long after the minimum wage has risen to $10 an hour and Wal-Mart has been bought by Starbucks. As an anti-business botch it could rank with the famous 1981 interest-rate limit that sent MBNA Corp. and its eventual 10,000 jobs to Delaware.

No, $23 million doesn't look like much in Maryland's $220 billion economy. Yes, the stem-cell bill was about symbolism as well as substance. "It would have been a good message to send to the country," says Charlie Scott, chief of government relations for the Tech Council of Maryland.

But other "anti-business" moves committed by the legislature were almost entirely symbolic.

Maryland, with 4.2 percent unemployment, already has an effective minimum wage for most workers of at least $6.15 an hour, as companies bid for scarce people. Few will be affected, even if Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. doesn't veto the minimum-wage bill.

Wal-Mart says it already devotes more than 7 percent of its payroll to health care - close to the 8 percent Maryland employers of 10,000 or more must achieve to avoid the new tax. No other companies would be affected, and Ehrlich has promised to veto the bill anyway.

The stem-cell bill, by contrast, would spark a promising industry that Maryland has promoted as its economic future at a critical time.

To affect the outcome of any evolutionary process, the earlier one intervenes, the better. Everything we know about the riches of new technology, the first-mover advantage for agile organizations and the self-reinforcing nature of industrial clusters tells us that for Maryland the cost of delaying stem-cell promotion could be huge.

Other states are moving. New Jersey has founded a Stem Cell Institute with state money. California voters approved spending $3 billion on embryonic stem-cell research over the next decade. Illinois is considering a tax on plastic surgery to finance stem-cell investigation.

States are getting into stem-cell research because the federal government has gotten out.

In 2001, President Bush banned federal spending on embryonic stem-cell investigation, which generally involves destroying a small human embryo created through in-vitro fertilization, except on a few existing colonies. Federal research on adult stem cells, which many scientists say shows less promise than embryonic cells, is still permitted.

California saw an opportunity. By starting its own embryonic stem-cell fund, it could steal a march on Maryland, Massachusetts and other states stymied by the federal drought.

It's still legal to finance embryonic stem-cell science with private money, but government funds have always been crucial to basic research that is years or decades away from producing salable products. Nearby federal funds and labs are a key reason Maryland has a biotech cluster.

So the state has as much to lose as it does to win. If stem-cell momentum shifts elsewhere, Maryland could not only forgo future gains but also start to lose the critical mass of biotechnology talent that consistently puts it near the top in rankings of high-tech centers.

This is true whether or not one is morally opposed to embryonic stem-cell research. If stem-cell investigation starts to fulfill its promise, opponents can justify Maryland's lost opportunities on ethical grounds. But they won't be able to deny they were lost.

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