March 30, 2009
It may well be that one of the most important laws that gets made this session isn’t even a law.
It didn’t get a hearing. It was never evaluated for its fiscal impact. No one, for it or against it, ever got to testify on it or really even knew it was happening.
A whole lot of people, including me, are deeply opposed to it. But depending on what happens today, it might not be possible to stop it without forcing a special session this summer, even if that’s possible.
I’m talking about the ban on embryonic stem cell research that’s now hidden away in the 2010-11 state budget.
If you missed it – and, unless you happened to be watching the right two minutes of the Senate Finance Committee meeting last Monday, you did – the committee voted 6-5 (with four members absent) to write into the budget what’s known as a rider. This obscure provision says, “No funds appropriated under this Act shall be used in conjunction with or to support research which involves the destruction of a human embryo” (emphasis added). Here’s some coverage of the decision, along with my statement from last week.
I’ve heard it said that a “strict” reading indicates that under this provision, public universities (where much of this work is taking place) would be prohibited from such basic things as paying the salaries of some researchers or the electricity bills for buildings where this research is taking place. I’d call that a “common sense, real life” reading of English – I can’t see how you could argue anything else without ignoring the six words I highlighted.
The most remarkable thing, however, isn’t the action; it’s the way it happened. There was no notice that this rider was up for a vote, the committee didn’t discuss it at all, and no one was given the opportunity to testify on it.
This for a provision that could dictate whether Texas will lead in the biomedical industries that rise from this research, attract researchers who will power the 21st Century economy, and play a role in developing cures to horrible diseases and afflictions.
And people wonder why I worry about budget openness and transparency . . .
There probably isn’t much doubt about how important this is to me. I naturally support any ethical, humane form of research into cures for the cancer that killed both of my parents and dramatically impacted me, or the Type 1 diabetes that keeps my oldest son on what amounts to a life-support system (albeit one that gives him a healthy, productive, active life).
Embryonic stem cell research has the potential to treat, prevent and cure these and other diseases. Scientists can work with these cells to study how organs develop and become damaged. And they might find cures that will lead the body to re-create healthy cells and organs in the place of sickened ones.
To get the basics on stem cell research from folks who do it for a living, click here.
Even former President George W. Bush recognized the importance of this research when he set out rules allowing scientists to use existing lines of stem cells – theoretically allowing the work to continue while preventing new stem cell lines from being formed from fertilized embryos (which are most commonly found in the freezers of fertility clinics, where they’re stored until they’re discarded).
Of course, President Obama has reversed the limitations created by those rules, creating a huge opportunity for scientists around the country to expand research into these areas – developing cures and companies that will boost the economy and help the infirm.
Some states are already moving to invest in this vital new area. But in Texas, apparently, some leaders want to go the other direction.
The stem cell rider would ban even the types of ongoing research that the Bush rules allowed. It’s an attack on the folks working to help us, either by providing jobs that will get us out of this recession and allow Texas to remain competitive and prosperous in the 21st Century economy, or by finding cures that will save people in this state and around the world.
I wish that were the worst thing about the rider.
The truth is, there are two sides to this debate. I understand the concerns of people who look at it differently than I do, and I respect them for their passion.
They have a perspective, and this is a democracy. If we were to debate this issue the way we do everything else, they’d make their case, we’d make ours, the legislature would decide it, and the voters would decide whom to reward and to punish.
But that’s not how this is happening.
No, this is being shoved into the one bill that the legislature has to pass every two years – the budget. And, again, it was done with no notice, no testimony, and no debate. All we know is that the members have “been discussing this privately,” according to the committee chairman. It isn’t even clear that the members completely understood the implications of the rider.
To hear the entire public discussion of whether or not to ban this research at Texas institutions, go to the Senate broadcast archives, click on Part II of the March 23rd Senate Finance Committee meeting, and fast-forward to the 41:28 mark. It’s over by 43:30, and the speed and lack of consideration are stunning.
I’ve been talking all year about how the budget process is rigged, set up to avoid scrutiny and to enforce the will of the powerful. Accounting is creative and self-serving. Funds aren’t used in ways leaders promise and people demand. Legislators grade their own papers. And transparency tools lag behind technology in allowing people to know how their money is being spent.
Well, this is the ultimate demonstration of it. A very important, very controversial issue that likely wouldn’t survive the legislative process slips into the budget in the darkest of ways.
People who feel as I do about embryonic stem cell research now have three hopes: that the Senate Finance Committee will reevaluate this mistake – either in substance or process – and remove the rider before voting the whole budget out of committee as early as today; that this provision will vanish as mysteriously as it appeared at some point during the budget process; or that the budget will somehow not pass and we’ll all come back this summer for a “special” session.
But no matter how you feel about this issue, the events of this week should trouble you. One partisan majority should never use something like the state budget as a cloak to hide the passage of partisan legislation.
It corrupts the system.
Power shifts, and majorities come and go. But one truth should remain: It’s wrong to pass the most important laws in ways that people are the least likely to see.