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NJ Officials Eye New Stem-Cell Referendum As Industry, Rutgers Ask What Went Wrong

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A key proponent of New Jersey’s defeated $450 million stem-cell referendum told BioRegion News last week that the state’s top elected officials will ask voters again — perhaps as soon as next year — to approve a similar bond issue for an as-yet-undetermined amount.
 
“The only thing people are considering is, when is the best time to do this, and whether or not they can get the political support in the next few months to get the referendum passed” in 2008, Wise Young, Richard H. Shendell chair in neuroscience at state-funded Rutgers University, said last week in an interview.
 
“This is being discussed right now. I think all the political leadership of New Jersey is very, very much in favor of this, so I don’t think there will be any opposition to the idea,” said Young, the founding director of the WH Keck Center for Collaborative Neuroscience. “We cannot give up. We must raise the money and we must move forward.”
 
A 2008 referendum, he said, offers the advantage of likely drawing a higher turnout than this year due to the presidential election, which would be a toss-up in the Garden State according to a Quinnipiac University poll released Sept. 26.
 
If polls released over the past month by NBC/Wall Street Journal, ABC news/Washington Post, and CNN/Opinion Research Corp. are accurate, next year’s presidential and congressional elections are expected to include a higher turnout than recent years of Democrats, who have been generally supportive of borrowing state money for stem-cell research in New Jersey and elsewhere.
 
Young was among New Jersey life science leaders who joined Gov. Jon Corzine and legislative leaders in campaigning for the stem-cell referendum, known as Public Question No. 2  — only to be stunned on Nov. 6 when state voters defeated it by 53 to 47 percent, 606,271 to 683,861, according to unofficial results by the state Division of Elections. It was the first time voters had defeated a statewide ballot question since 1991.
 
Spokespeople for Corzine, state General Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts Jr., and state Senate President Richard Codey did not return phone messages from BRN seeking comment on whether they will pursue a second stem-cell referendum. Unlike other spending issues, stem-cell research is one where Corzine has readily found consensus with legislative leaders.
 
At a press conference the morning after the referendum defeat, Corzine did not discuss the possibility of a second referendum. But he did say the state’s tab for stem-cell research could be reduced through smaller requests by lawmakers and the sharing of facilities.
 
“I also believe there are opportunities to share with the private sector facilities and our universities as well, that will make this viable,” Corzine said.
 
The head of an anti-tax group instrumental in shooting down the ballot question, the New Jersey chapter of Americans for Prosperity, told BRN he expects Corzine and lawmakers to start setting aside state money for stem-cell research as part of a special state legislative session expected before the end of the year.
 
“Our next battle is going to be in the lame-duck session. We think they’re going to try to push some of their agenda through there,” said Steve Lonegan, executive director of AFP-NJ. “We’re ready to take [Corzine] on. I think we have the troops in place to do what we need to do. We intend to win.”
 
Looking West, and East
 
The bond issue would have funded peer-reviewed research projects approved by the state Commission on Science and Technology. Since December 2005, the commission has awarded over $15.2 million through the state’s Stem Cell Research Grant Program.
 
Young and other supporters of the $450 million bond issue contended it would draw topflight stem-cell researchers to the Garden State over the nation’s largest life science clusters in the San Francisco and Boston regions, which are also leading centers of stem-cell research.
 
Massachusetts is looking to spend $66 million to create a stem cell bank to make available for public and private research stem cell lines held by eight institutions, as part of Deval Patrick’s $1 billion, 10-year Life Sciences Initiative under review by Bay State lawmakers [BioRegionNews, Nov. 5].
 
And this year, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine approved $210 million in grants, with another $300 million in funding under review — including $227 million in “major facilities” grants sought by 17 applicants. CIRM prevailed last May in a court battle against opponents of embryonic stem-cell research seeking to overturn Proposition 71. [BioRegion News, May 28].
 
“The stem cell research component obviously won’t take off at the pace at which we hoped it would. But there is stem cell research going on here, and that will continue,”
said Debbie Hart, president of BioNJ, formerly the Biotechnology Council of New Jersey, in an interview with BioRegion News. BioNJ represents more than 200 member life science companies and vendors.
 
“I truly don’t believe people voted against the merits of stem-cell research. It was purely they didn’t want the state to go into any more debt. I think if we were in a different economic situation, I think it would have passed hands down,” Hart added.
 
Hart said she didn’t think the defeat would slow down the overall growth of the state’s life sciences cluster — which has ballooned to 235 businesses from 80 in 1998 — because the state still has strong incentives for such companies looking to relocate to New Jersey or expand there.
 
Hart and other Public Question 2 supporters also reasoned that a strong stem-cell research program in New Jersey could stave off a cross-border challenge from New York — which earlier this year committed $600 million over the next decade to grow its nascent stem-cell sub-cluster.
 
“I’m sure New York is relieved, because [the bond issue] would have created more competition, specifically in the stem cell arena. But New Jersey’s a very competitive player in the broader biotechnology marketplace, and we’ll continue to be.”
 
New York’s current $120.9 billion budget created an Empire State Stem Cell Trust to collect and distribute funds for stem-cell research. The budget itself earmarked $100 million for the trust, as well as $50 million a year over 10 fiscal years starting in 2008-09, paid for through the conversion of the nonprofit Health Insurance Plan of Greater New York to a for-profit company. The trust would be run by a new Empire State Stem Cell Board within the state Department of Health.
 
Nathan Tinker, executive director of the New York Biotechnology Association, said he disagrees with his New Jersey counterpart that his state will likely benefit from the defeat of Prop 2.
 
“I don’t think the Prop 2 defeat will have a significant effect on New York’s initiative,” Tinker told BioRegion News via e-mail. “The two are set up rather differently and the funding mechanisms are different.  New York’s initiative continues to move forward, albeit slowly.  
 
“The good thing is that the initiative continues to create focus and attention on New York’s life sciences community. Translating that focus into action will be the challenge,” Tinker added.
 
Spending, Dollars or Turnout?
 
At a news conference the morning after the vote, Corzine blamed the defeat of the stem-cell referendum on what he called a growing voter unease with large-scale state spending. The proposed borrowing — $45 million for each of the next 10 years — would raise state debt, though estimates have varied from as low as $20 million to as much as $37 million a year.
 
Either number is not too much for a state that already shoulders a debt load of more than $33.5 billion, said Richard Keevey, director of the Policy Research Institute for the Region at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
 
Keevey said the bonds proposed in the defeated ballot question would have been issued at lower interest rates than those under a $270 million capital funding plan for stem-cell facilities enacted by Corzine in December 2006. That’s because the facility bonds are being issued by the state’s Economic Development Authority, and not backed by “the full faith and credit” of the state itself as the $450 million would have been.
 
Corzine and lawmakers have projected they will have to plug a deficit exceeding $3 billion to balance the state’s budget next year. Earlier this year, he and lawmakers plugged a $2.5 billion shortfall — while in 2006, Young noted, the governor and lawmakers agreed to a series of spending that sliced 2.7 percent from the state's 31 public colleges and universities.
 
“The public sent us a clear message that they are not happy with the financial structure, and they want to see a financing plan that encompasses all aspects of how we handle [the state’s finances] and move forward,” Corzine said, in comments later echoed by Codey and Roberts in interviews with New Jersey news outlets.
 
Corzine’s theory of a voter spending revolt may explain why state voters sided with him in rejecting another ballot question — raising from half to all the percentage of last year’s one-cent sales-tax hike earmarked for local governments to contain rising property taxes.
 
But Young noted that voters did approve some additional state spending — namely borrowing $200 million for acquisitions of undeveloped property or “open space.”
 
A better explanation of the stem-cell defeat, Young said, involves money and people. He said proponents of the stem-cell bond issue were far outspent and out-organized by a coalition of opponents.
 
For example, he said, stem-cell bond issue proponents acting through the umbrella group New Jersey for Hope paid for two days of radio advertisements and a direct mailing using $150,000 donated by Corzine, who amassed a multi-million-dollar fortune before turning to politics. Commercials featured the pioneer hip hop group Sugarhill Gang, and actor Michael J. Fox, who launched a foundation to fund research into Parkinson’s disease, which cut short his career.
 
In California, by contrast, supporters of that state’s Public Question 71 stem-cell ballot question in 2004 spent $30 million on advertising and marketing.
 
And while New Jersey for Hope spent a total half-million dollars to advance the stem-cell bond issue, Young said, “We were inexperienced and really didn’t realize we had to raise [more] money to get this issue passed. We’ve learned our lesson from this,” Young said.
 
Young estimated proponents were outspent by opponents “10-to-one,” based on the number of days he heard commercials opposing Public Question 2. But a key opponent — Marie Tasy, executive director of New Jersey Right to Life — told BioRegion News the opposite was the case.
 

“I truly don’t believe people voted against the merits of stem-cell research. It was purely they didn’t want the state to go into any more debt. I think if we were in a different economic situation, I think it would have passed hands down.”

Neither Tasy nor another opponent would say how much they spent. Tasy denied her group spent “under $100,000,” as reported by the New York Times; while another group opposing Prop 2, the New Jersey chapter of the anti-tax group Americans for Prosperity, would not confirm a Star-Ledger report last month where another leader of that group projected it would spend $170,000 by Election Day.
 
NJRTL ran commercials with its own celebrity spokesman — Steven McDonald, the paralyzed New York City police officer who espouses several causes reflecting his devout Roman Catholic faith. RTL also objected to a nearly $3 million grant awarded to Rutgers’ Keck Center for a core facility that collaborates with Reprogenetics LLC to research human embryonic stem cells, toward therapies for central nervous system disorders.
 
NJRTL and 15 citizens also sought unsuccessfully to stop the referendum through a lawsuit in which it argued the bond issue should include statements that the measure would require the state to raise property and sales taxes, and would allow human cloning. The group accused supporters of deceiving voters by downplaying the possibility of human cloning.
 
“This is an issue that’s much too important to hide from the voters, an issue that could have grave consequences for humanity. And people have a right to be informed about this issue,” Tasy said.
 
Referendum supporters denied they were promoting human cloning or engaging in deception, and noted the law at issue in the referendum differed from the state law allowing embryonic stem-cell research until newborn stages, enacted in 2004 by then-governor James McGreevey. NJRTL countered that the new language, banning cloning intended “to produce a human fetus,” was too vague to stop such activity since it doesn’t spell out how far into pregnancy cloning was disallowed. The group sought language similar to other states, which have banned cloning upon embryo implantation, and end research on embryos after 14 days.
 
On its website, the group raised additional arguments — including the possibility that institutions would pursue half-human, half-animal “chimera” cloning; the possibility that research institutions would prevent the creation of life by offering women financial incentives to donate their eggs; and what it said were “dangerous” health effects attributable to the egg extraction process, such as “memory loss, liver disorders, early osteoporosis, ovarian cancer and death.”
 
Lonegan of the New Jersey chapter of Americans for Prosperity said his group drew more than 2,000 members eager to defeat the stem-cell referendum by talking to their neighbors, writing letters to local newspapers, displaying signs on their lawns, and bringing opponents to the polls. He said the group drew “primarily older voters” as its supporters, in part through an Oct. 31-Nov. 2 bus tour stopping at diners statewide, dubbed “Take Back New Jersey.”
 
“It was supposed to be impossible to win, and we did it. We did it through our grassroots activity, our phone calling, our TV and radio spots. We sent a very powerful message to Trenton that we don’t want any more of your big government, big taxes and big spending,” Lonegan said. “I think people saw through the government telling us they’re going to roll the dice on this highly risky business venture, and we’re going to benefit from it. I think people saw through that.”
 
The group linked the anti-tax sentiment it stoked to the result of a Monmouth University/Gannett New Jersey Newspapers poll released Oct. 17. The poll showed 49 percent of 801 adults surveyed said they wanted to move out of the Garden State, and of those 58 percent cited the state’s rising taxes as the reason. The poll was conducted Sept. 27- 30, and had a margin of error of +/- 3.5 percent.
 
“Combined with the people leaving the state, [and] the declining business environment, they just don’t trust the government. And they have every reason not to trust the government,” Lonegan said.
 
NJRTL and New Jersey AFP were joined in opposition to Prop 2 by the state’s five Roman Catholic dioceses. Starting on Oct. 7, dubbed “Respect Life Sunday,” parish priests distributed to parishioners a 14-minute DVD and letters from their bishops opposing the stem-cell borrowing The state’s 3.6 million Catholics constitute more than 41 percent of the state’s population of 8.7 million people.
 
The diocese of Trenton placed ads on buses depicting a baby boy and the phrase: “Just an embryo 270 days ago.” The church objects to the potential state funding of embryonic stem-cell research since it involves destruction of embryos, which it defines as human life.
 
“In a very low-turnout election, any of those groups that organize well have impact. And so I suspect they had impact on this,” Corzine told reporters.
 
‘We Would Have Won’
 
As much a problem as money, say referendum backers, was voter turnout.
 
The state’s overall Election Day turnout was the smallest-ever, surpassing the 34 percent recorded four years earlier. Corzine pegged it at 25 percent, though the state’s attorney general said that would likely rise when absentee and provisional ballots are counted. While turnout in counties opposed to Public Question 2 was at that level or higher, the percentage of people who voted was below the statewide percentage in the counties most supportive of the stem-cell ballot question: Only 16 percent of voters in Essex County, which includes Newark, went to the polls; as did only 10 percent of voters in Hudson County.
 
“If we had just turned out the votes to just 25 or 30 percent in those two counties alone, we would have won the initiative,” Young said.
 
Young and other stem-cell bond proponents appeared to have won the policy debate late last month. News outlets statewide gave wide coverage to Corzine’s leading state officials and Rutgers administrators in breaking ground on a $150 million, 18-story Stem Cell Institute of New Jersey tower on Little Albany Street in downtown New Brunswick, across the street from the Cancer Institute of New Jersey. 
 
Funding for the project accounted for most of the $270 million stem-cell capital project approved by legislators and signed into law by Corzine late last year. The remainder included $50 million for the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School at Camden and the Cancer Institute of New Jersey; $50 million for adult stem cell research facilities at New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark; $10 million for the Garden State Cancer Center in Belleville; and $10 million for the Eli Katz Umbilical Cord Blood program in Allendale.
 
“We are doing something really important here today. This is about humanity writ large,” Corzine said at the ceremony.
 
In the week that followed, two university polls showed broad support for the stem-cell plan. Fairleigh Dickinson University PublicMind showed a 47-38 percent margin in favor of the referendum question, based on a survey of on 701 “likely” voters, conducted Oct. 22-28, with a margin of error plus or minus 4 percent.
 
And Rutgers’ Eagleton Institute of Politics reported a larger majority, 57-36 percent, favoring the stem cell borrowing plan. Rutgers-Eagleton reported support for the measure among two traditional groups of religious opponents: Catholic voters by a 48 to 41 percent margin; and evangelical Protestants by 48 to 42 percent. Rutgers-Eagleton surveyed 856 registered voters from Oct. 18-23 and had a +/- 3.4 percent margin of error.
 
John Weingart, associate director of Rutgers-Eagleton, said in an interview that voter concern over the state’s fiscal health had grown since the poll was taken. The poll showed 58 percent of stem-cell bond opponents believed New Jersey could not afford the added debt, while only 26 percent cited moral and ethical concerns.
 
“The voters are aware of the state’s dire fiscal situation, and that was what determined the outcome much more than opposition to stem cell research,” Weingart said.
 
Hence, he said, the anti-tax message of opponents took root beyond its base of voters: “[Before Election Day] I would have said it was not being very forceful, but it certainly is a surprise. It appears that something happened to change the minds of a significant number of people who voted.”
 
Weingart said other explanations for the poll results include more attention to newspaper endorsements, many of which opposed the bond issue, since the most contested Assembly and Senate races also reflected who got endorsed. Another possible explanation, he said, was the timing of the referendum: “The odds are had this been the year when there was a US Senate candidate or a president on the ballot, there would have been a higher turnout and this might well have passed.”
 
The poll and groundbreaking event weren’t the only means used by Rutgers to shape the stem-cell debate. A report issued by the university’s Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy last month projected the stem-cell research spending would generate more than $115 million in state revenues, about 30,000 jobs and nearly $2.2 billion in total economic activity.
 
Those projections, however, failed to sway voters to vote for state funding of stem-cell research, despite polls showing a solid majority in favor of it.
 
“If the majority was in favor of embryonic stem cell research, then why didn’t the majority come out and vote for it? They had every opportunity,” Tasy told BRN.
 

New Jersey Stem Cell Vote
County
Yes
No
Atlantic
17,314
28,719
Bergen
74,242
62,308
Burlington
38,811
39,825
Camden
38,658
33,896
Cape May
10,008
16,118
Cumberland
7,365
13,878
Essex
39,827
25,922
Gloucester
23,178
26,619
Hudson
20,288
10,413
Hunterdon
11,481
18,230
Mercer
34,380
30,074
Middlesex
51,268
55,287
Monmouth
55,158
70,341
Morris
40,353
50,882
Ocean
39,751
72,555
Passaic
22,979
23,606
Salem
7,235
9,913
Somerset
25,877
33,333
Sussex
12,115
20,393
Union
28,785
28,623
Warren
7,198
12,926
TOTAL
606,271
683,861
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