Legislators OK stem cell bill

Md. to become fourth state to authorize tax dollars for embryonic cell research

General Assembly

March 30, 2006|By JENNIFER SKALKA | JENNIFER SKALKA,SUN REPORTER

Maryland will become the fourth state to authorize tax dollars for embryonic stem cell research when the governor signs a bill approved yesterday by the General Assembly.

Supporters hailed the plan as a boost to the hopes of the chronically ill as well as to the state's biotechnology industry and scientific community. Advocates had urged lawmakers to follow the lead of California, New Jersey and Connecticut - states that have established funding plans in the wake of a federal ban on research involving embryonic stem cells.

"We've done the right thing for our state, not just for the people who are here today, but others who are suffering," said Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat and leading proponent of stem cell legislation.

With a $15 million budget commitment effective July 1, the legislation establishes a clear process for reviewing research projects and allows the money to be used for the most promising proposals for study involving embryonic or adult stem cells. The House of Delegates approved the measure, which had already been adopted by the Senate, by a vote of 90-48.

"It is a major step in the right direction," said Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., adding that he plans to sign the bill into law.

Scientists hope that research using stem cells could lead to cures for diseases such as diabetes, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, as well as debilitating conditions such as paralysis.

Though other states have pledged more money, Dr. John Gearhart, a leading stem cell researcher at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, said that the $15 million, one-year funding commitment is a good start. The average National Institutes of Health grant for stem cell research is $250,000, he said.

Passage of the bill could neutralize what was expected to be a potent campaign issue for Democrats as Ehrlich, a Republican, seeks re-election in November.

Ehrlich had walked a fine line in supporting stem cell legislation this session. In a nod to his conservative base, the governor had insisted that funding should not be directed just to embryonic stem cell research, a controversial science that uses cells harvested from human embryos, but should be available equally for research using adult stem cells, which come from bone marrow.

Ehrlich had repeatedly insisted that legislation was unnecessary, supporting instead a $20 million budget proposal that gave the Maryland Technology Development Corp., a quasi-state agency, authority for administering grants. But within a half-hour of the bill's passage, the governor announced that he would sign it.

"Everyone moved to the administration's position," Ehrlich said. "I didn't think a bill was needed, but if a bill had to be passed, clearly this bill reflects our position."

Democrats still believe they have a case to make in alerting moderate voters that Ehrlich came late to the issue, allowing a filibuster threat to sink a similar proposal last year.

They say Ehrlich might have an eye on state polling numbers which show that stem cell research is popular among Democratic and Republican voters alike in Maryland. A November poll for The Sun showed that 60 percent of likely voters favor state funding for the science.

"For him to try to score political points on something that he provided no leadership on, and happened a year after it should've happened, it's pretty sad," said Maryland Democratic Party Chairman Terry Lierman.

James Gimpel, a University of Maryland professor of government, said he does not believe that Ehrlich's support for stem cell research will hurt him with his base, because it will not have a more conservative candidate to support in the governor's race.

Conservative voters understand that they're not going to get everything they want from a Republican governor seeking re-election in a state in which Democrats outnumber them 2-to-1, Gimpel said.

"It sounds like it's something Democrats dared him to veto, dared him to blink, and he didn't," Gimpel said. "I don't see how it could alienate him."

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, a Democrat who made stem cell research a top priority this year, said he sees Ehrlich's support for the bill as an election-year move to the middle of the political spectrum. He said Ehrlich will attempt to "run as a Democrat."

"I've seen it for four years; their shamelessness is beyond reproach," Busch said.

In 2001, President Bush restricted federal funding for embryonic stem cell research to existing cell lines, leading to a push among some state legislatures to fill the financial vacuum. California has committed $3 billion to research, though the state's progress has been slowed by legal challenges. New Jersey and Connecticut also approved funding commitments, and other states are debating the issue.

The Maryland bill began as a $25 million annual funding commitment, but that mandate was stripped to win support for the proposal in the state Senate. A requirement that embryonic stem cell proposals should receive priority funding was also dropped from the bill.

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