Senate passes stem cell bill

Lawmakers must reconcile differences with House proposal

General Assembly

March 10, 2006|By JENNIFER SKALKA | JENNIFER SKALKA,SUN REPORTER

Giving hope to advocates that a stem cell research bill will finally reach the governor's desk, the Maryland Senate followed the House's lead yesterday in passing a proposal designed to put the state at the forefront of cutting-edge science.

With the two chambers of the General Assembly having passed competing bills, serious negotiations will soon get under way to find consensus on a divisive moral issue that could be a major factor in the fall political campaign.

The Senate plan, adopted on a 29-18 vote a day after a Republican-led filibuster fizzled after six hours, would allow the state to spend tax dollars on stem cell research, but it does not actually allocate funds.

Unlike the House plan adopted last week, the Senate proposal does not give priority to embryonic stem cell research. A provision that would favor using embryos was stripped from the bill after intense negotiations earlier this week.

The House version would commit $25 million yearly for research, placing a priority on embryonic stem cell research.

With both chambers adopting legislation and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. expressing support for a stem cell program, Maryland has moved closer to states such as California and New Jersey that have decided to commit state taxpayer dollars to the science. Advocates say states must fill a vacuum left by a federal restriction on certain types of stem cell research.

"We're not talking here about mad science," said Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, a Baltimore County Democrat and the bill's sponsor. "We're talking about putting protections in a bill that are not in the budget."

Ehrlich plan

Ehrlich's own stem cell proposal differs from the House and Senate versions in that he wants the executive branch - not the legislature - to guide spending decisions.

The governor has so far stood by his plan to direct $20 million from the state budget to the Maryland Technology Development Corp. The technology group, whose mission is to help seed businesses in the state but isn't explicitly scientific in nature, would determine how the grant money would be distributed.

Under that scenario, the governor has said, a bill would not be necessary, but he nevertheless said yesterday that he is pleased with the direction the Senate is taking. He said the Senate bill looks more like his proposal than the legislature's original funding plan and that he likes that it doesn't include an annual funding requirement.

"To some extent the philosophical orientation of the research itself has been minimized, not to my extreme pleasure, but we've made some progress there," Ehrlich said.

The Senate plan was adopted yesterday after about 90 minutes of debate, with supporters saying the law was needed to advance medical research and opponents condemning the measure on largely moral and religious grounds.

Before the vote, critics argued that the proposal was flawed and registered their opposition to embryonic stem cell research, which uses cells from human embryos in an effort to find cures for diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. They liken the science to abortion because an embryo must be destroyed.

"It's a human life, it's a human embryo," said Sen. Nancy Jacobs, a Harford County Republican.

Both legislative plans outline procedures for deciding how the money is spent - which the governor opposes.

The Senate bill establishes a review process should the governor decide to commit money each year to research. It also establishes a process to allow scientists and other experts to review grant proposals.

Both bills only allow the use of embryos that would otherwise be discarded from fertility clinics.

Democrats have supported stem cell research not only because of its potential benefits, but because it allows them to draw a distinction with conservative Republicans. Polls show the majority of voters favor the concept.

Ehrlich has complicated the political equation by expressing support for funding and research, but not going as far as many Democrats would like.

The Senate bill goes next week to two House committees, where it could be amended. If neither chamber approves the other's bill, a conference committee could work to mesh the proposals.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch said yesterday that he's in no rush to move the Senate plan through his chamber. Busch said he wants to see a stem cell funding initiative become law but expressed disappointment with the Senate version because it lacks a funding commitment.

"I would think that we would have fallen short," Busch said when asked how he would feel about the Senate plan winning out, "but the legislative process is about compromise."

Busch also chastised Ehrlich for not working with lawmakers to craft a proposal that could be passed in both chambers and that he would sign.

"He could have given greater direction during this debate," Busch said.

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