House to weigh Senate stem cell bill

Lawmakers hope to avoid Ehrlich's veto with compromise proposal on research


Aiming to pass a stem cell research bill that would avoid the governor's veto, the House of Delegates will take up the Senate's compromise proposal next week, according to House Speaker Michael E. Busch.

"It's believed that [scientific] experts feel comfortable moving forward with the Senate bill," Busch said.

Busch, who favored the House's plan that called for $25 million yearly for research, had initially expressed disappointment with the Senate proposal, which doesn't require annual funding, instead leaving that decision to the governor. It does, however, set up a structure for evaluating research proposals.

Lawmakers and advocates say they hope passing the Senate version of the bill would at least allow Maryland to get out front on the issue, which is vital not just to the state's scientific community but also to the biotechnology industry.

Senate lawmakers have said that they don't have the votes to get approval for the more expansive House funding proposal.

Busch said he hopes to get the Senate bill through the House - the bill is expected to be heard Tuesday by the House Health and Government Operations Committee - and to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. by March 31.

Supporters believe stem cell research could help treat or cure dozens of debilitating diseases, including Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. But others oppose embryonic stem cell research, a practice they compare to abortion because the embryos must be destroyed.

Curt I. Civin, a Johns Hopkins University cancer expert who supports a funding bill, said he believes the Senate bill most closely mirrors Ehrlich's budget proposal, and he hopes the governor would support it.

"I think the people of the state very much want this bill to further studies that would help people with up to 70 diseases," Civin said. "I think the governor wants to do this. ... Certainly his opponents in the fall [election] will make hay if he doesn't."

Early in the session, Ehrlich proposed a $20 million stem cell research fund that would be managed by the Maryland Technology Development Corp., a quasi-state agency. He has said he supports embryonic stem cell research, but would leave decisions about the types of projects that would be funded to the technology group.

While the money has been stripped from the Senate plan, it would allow the technology group to administer any funding. It also creates an independent commission, including bioethicists, scientists and others, to review proposals. A scientific peer review committee will provide that group with recommendations about which projects most deserve funding.

Henry Fawell, an Ehrlich spokesman, said the governor believes legislation is unnecessary. He wouldn't say whether the governor would sign or veto such a plan if it reaches his desk.

"Considering many of the changes they've made were to align it with the governor's proposal, it would be a lot easier if they just adopted the governor's budget proposal," Fawell said.

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