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Stem cell agency refi: LAO sees $7.8 billion price tag

A pipette and vessels usd in stem cell research. (Photo: CI Photos, via Shutterstock)

The price tag for refinancing California’s unique and ambitious stem cell research program could run close to $7.8 billion, give or take a few hundred million dollars or more.

So says the state’s legislative analyst in a financial analysis of a proposed ballot initiative that is likely to be on next November’s ballot. The measure would provide $5.5 billion more for research awards to California scientists by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), as the state stem cell agency is formally known.

The increase in the price tag is caused by the fact that the $5.5 billion would be borrowed money — bonds that would be issued by the state. The legislative analyst estimated that the interest costs could total $2.3 billion, bringing the actual expense to taxpayers to $7.8 billion.

Should the initiative qualify for the ballot, the seven-page financial overview of the measure would be delivered, via the state’s official voter’s guide, to about 20 million California voters prior to the election.

Significant caveats exist, however. The legislative analyst, who prepares these sorts of analyses for all ballot measures, cautioned that the $7.8 billion estimate could rise or fall depending on how interest rates rise or fall. Another unknown involves the length of the payback period.

What the legislative analyst has to say is a significant matter for the proposed initiative, whose success will determine the financial survival of the agency. CIRM is running out of cash. It was funded by voters 15 years ago with $3 billion. If the proposed initiative fails, CIRM will wither away over the next two to three years.

Should the initiative qualify for the ballot, the seven-page financial overview of the measure would be delivered, via the state’s official voter’s guide, to about 20 million California voters prior to the election. The overview would also serve as the basis for news stories in virtually all of the media, which is always looking for bottom line figures.

Beyond the interest costs, the analysis carried other financial bits of interest. It said that over an initial, five-year period the agency would use some the bond proceeds to pay the interest on the money it is borrowing. The analyst said:  “Were the state to begin issuing bonds shortly after approval of the measure, CIRM would likely make interest payments totaling in the low hundreds of millions of dollars from bond proceeds by the end of 2025.”

Royalties from any therapies financed by CIRM research would go to the agency and not the state general fund, as currently is the case.

The proposed initiative also places a 6.5 percent cap on total funding for certain operational expenses including administration and grant oversight. Other changes would give more freedom to the agency, which originally had a 50-person cap on staff. That cap was later removed by state legislation. The new initiative would set the cap at 70 with a provision for more employees beyond that number, under certain conditions involving, among other things, compensating them with cash raised privately.

The new initiative stipulates that the agency improve access to stem cell therapies, funding that effort with up to 1 percent of the $5.5 billion, a change from the current law involving CIRM.  Other changes from the current situation: 1.5 percent for starting “community care centers” for new clinical trial sites, $1.5 billion for research into brain and nervous system diseases and up to 0.5 percent for a shared lab program.

Royalties from any therapies financed by CIRM research would go to the agency and not the state general fund, as currently is the case. So far, royalties have totaled only about $200,000. Larger amounts are likely to appear in the next decade as the therapies emerge from the research that was financed years ago.

Regarding possible savings as the result of more cost-effective therapies, the analysis said: “To the extent the measure results in new treatments that are more cost-effective than existing treatments, state and local governments could experience savings in some programs such as Medi-Cal, the state’s subsidized health care program for low-income people. The magnitude of these and other indirect effects is unknown.”

The stem cell agency, which was created by voters in 2004, has yet to finance research that has led to treatments that are approved for general public use.

In 2004, the legislative analyst prepared an interest cost estimate of $3 billion on the original amount for awards, also $3 billion. However, the projections did not anticipate the recession of 2008, which resulted in a long-term drop in interest rates. Today, the interest on the original $3 billion is expected to be about $1 billion.

Ed’s Note: David Jensen is a retired newsman who has followed the affairs of the $3 billion California stem cell agency since 2005 via his blog, the California Stem Cell Report, where this story first appeared. He has published more than 4,000 items on California stem cell matters in the past 15 years. 

 


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