Doubling Down on Stem Cells

by Charlie Spiering
Is your state in debt? Try gambling on embryonic research.

Nearly half of New Jersey’s citizens want to leave their state, and it’s not just because of the “Which exit?” jokes, its reputation for political corruption, or even the smell.

According to a Monmouth University/Gannett New Jersey Poll released last Wednesday, 49-percent want out of the Garden State, and 58-percent of those “Born to Run” cite the financial burden as their reason for leaving. High property taxes, high health-insurance premiums, and expensive housing are killing Jersey’s working class — a shocking 59-percent of those making between $50,000 and $100,000 per year want to re-locate.

A Rutgers University report published this month notes that out-migration to other U.S. states more than tripled between 2002 and 2006, draining $10 billion in personal income from the economy and reducing tax revenue by $680 million. As a result, the state’s fiscal woes now make it the nation’s fourth most indebted, trailing only California, New York, and Louisiana.

Democratic Governor John Corzine’s attempt at economic renewal is similar to that of other states in the same debt jam: Borrow half a billion dollars more and invest it in stem-cell research.

But wait, don’t laugh! That extra debt will yield a 16,000-percent return — that’s way better than a roulette-wheel bet on the green double-zero in Atlantic City. Seriously — an economic report prepared for the governor claims that borrowing money to invest in stem cells will lead to fewer employee sick days, fewer citizen deaths, and less in health-care costs in New Jersey — a savings of $73 billion in a span of nine years. If Corzine is making the state’s riskiest gamble yet, at least he is going for a real jackpot.

California took the lead nationally in 2004 by passing Proposition 71, which allowed the state to invest $3 billion in stem cell research over ten years. New York is also in the running as Gov. Eliot Spitzer (D.) began the year pushing for a $2 billion stem-cell initiative.

It goes to show that the states most deeply in debt are also the most desperate to corner this market, and competition appears to be fierce. To give Corzine a competitive bid, the New Jersey assembly has approved Referendum A3186 for the ballot next month, asking citizens to approve $450 million bond issue for stem-cell grants over ten years.

“We have been on the cutting edge and we’re going to stay there,” said Corzine, who has personally campaigned for the referendum. “Our moment is now and it’s in November. … I can’t tell you how excited I am!”

New Jersey has been paving the road for embryonic-stem-cell research since 2004, when then-Governor James McGreevey (D.) signed into law the most permissive legislation in the nation for embryonic-stem-cell research. It permits cloning, the destruction of human embryos, and even “fetus farming” for experimentation. In December 2005, New Jersey became the first state to finance research using human embryonic stem cells, as legislators boasted that they were overcoming President’s Bush’s veto of federal funding for the research.

Last week Corzine, who signed legislation last fall that already directed $270 million to stem-cell facilities, presided over a groundbreaking ceremony for the new Stem Cell Institute in New Brunswick. The new institute, named after actor and stem-cell activist Christopher Reeve, will be an 18-story tower providing status and space for embryonic research.

Now that Corzine has his stem-cell infrastructure in place, he is asking voters to take on additional debt. An independent study conducted by the New Jersey Office of Legislative Services suggests the cost of the debt service on the bonds could be as much as $37 million per year. Moreover, “no estimate of increased State revenue is feasible,” due to “the uncertainty of stem cell research grants resulting in financial gain to a grantee that would then be shared with the State.” Indeed, the ballot language, unsuccessfully challenged in court, fails to mention the debt service, the cloning, or the human embryos.

This has given rise to scoffers, such as Marie Tasy, executive director of New Jersey Right to Life. “Corzine is a multi-millionaire,” says Tasy. “If this is such a big issue, why doesn’t he bankroll it? It’s a blind obsession and he’s letting his personal and political agenda put this burden on the Jersey taxpayers.” Her organization will be running radio and television advertisements in upcoming weeks to warn voters about the effects of the referendum.

“We’ve taken a failed research and are now giving them money with no strings attached,” says Assemblyman John Rooney (R.), one of the few members of the state’s Science and Technology commission against the referendum. “If they fail, they fail…and we will have to pay for it.”

Indeed, embryonic stem cells have not produced any cures, and they produce too many malignant tumors in mice to be considered safe for human clinical trials. Yet passage of this bond referendum is considered likely. What if New Jersey loses the stem-cell battle and fails to cash in on the wide-ranging dreams of miracle cures promised by the referendum’s ballot language? No problem — future governors can raise taxes, borrow more money, and double down on Corzine’s stem-cell bet.

Stop running away, New Jersey! Green double-zero has to come up eventually.

– Charlie Spiering is a reporter for Robert Novak’s Inside Report.

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