California voters have apparently approved spending $5.5 billion more on stem cell research over the next 10 to 15 years and significantly broadening the scope of its state stem cell agency, according to unofficial figures this morning. 

The refinancing of the agency, officially known as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine  was approved by 51.1 percent of the voters compared to 48.9 percent against, with 99 percent of the votes in, state election officials reported.

A spokeswoman for the Proposition 14 campaign, however, said the vote is too close to call.

The institute was created by voters in 2004 who also provided it with $3 billion in borrowed money. However, the cash began to run out last year, and staffers were leaving. The Oakland-based agency was planning to begin closing its doors this winter in the event that Proposition 14 was not approved.

Approval of Proposition 14 means the revival of an enterprise that is unique in California history and in the nation. No other state has mounted a stem cell program on this scale. Voters 16 years ago endorsed it with 59 percent of the vote following a campaign that raised optimistic expectations that stem cell cures were right around the corner.

However, the institute has not financed a stem cell therapy that is widely available to the general public. It is helping, however, to finance 64 clinical trials.

In addition to providing $5.5 billion in state bonds, Proposition 14 authorizes California institute to expand its operations into such areas as mental health, therapy delivery and “aging as a pathology.” Its 29-member board will be expanded to 35, raising the likelihood of more conflicts of interests involving the board.

An analysis this summer by the California Stem Cell Reportshowed that 79 percent of the agency’s awards have gone to institutions with links to members of the institute’s board. The board members cannot vote on awards to their specific institutions. But they vote on and can change award “concept” programs that can benefit their institutions.

In 2012, a $700,000 evaluation of the institute, commissioned by the agency itself, recommended a major restructuring and was critical of the conflict of interest issues posed by its structure. Proposition 14 does little to address those recommendations from the prestigious Institute of Medicine.

The 2004 ballot initiative also deliberately structured things to avoid oversight by the governor and legislature. Funds flow directly to the institute without requiring legislative approval.

The immediate task now facing the agency is to adopt a new strategic plan for spending the $5.5 billion and hiring additional staff. The number of its employees dwindled to 33 this summer, down from a high of 56.

The instittue’s board yesterday scheduled a public, online meeting for Nov. 12. Its agenda currently does not include approval of the new strategic plan that its CEO Maria Millan and staff have been devising.

Proposition 14 could mean the removal of some board members whose terms are 50 percent expired. But that would depend on the pleasure of the appointing authorities.

The above comes from a Nov. 4 story in Capitol Weekly