The Flash Report, January 13, 2010
Torres, former legislator and now vice-chair of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), which in December tripled his salary from $75,000 to $225,000. California taxpayers will find Mr. Torres golden windfall educational in many ways.
At $150,000, the raise itself is more than the salary of state legislators, who are taking a pay cut of 18 percent. The massive six-figure raise is not even for a full-time post, only 80 percent of full time. It gets worse. All that money goes for a post that is unnecessary, for which Mr. Torres is ill suited, and in an agency that not only suffers from oversight problems but, on the scientific side, has canceled its very reason for existence.
At the basic level, the $150,000 raise is an example of spending when the alternatives cost less or nothing at all. When the CIRM was looking for a new co-chair for its Independent Citizens Oversight Committee it had two choices. Duane Roth a veteran of the biotech field, was already on the committee, enjoyed the support of the governor, and wanted to serve without a salary.
The other choice was Art Torres, a politician, a former state legislator, and former head of the state Democratic Party. Mr. Torres has no biotech or stem cell experience, but unlike Duane Roth, he did want a salary. For CIRM, the choice was a no-brainer. In March they made Torres co-chair with a $75,000 salary now boosted to a stellar $225,000.
The Sacramento Bee editorialized that Mr. Roth would have been a better solitary choice for the job and lamented that dividing the post would give more power than ever, to CIRM chairman Robert Klein, a partisan Democrat and real estate tycoon. He authored Proposition 71, the 2004 measure that established CIRM and made it practically impossible to change, and impossible to get rid of him. Klein himself used to serve without a salary but now takes one of $150,000, for working half time.
Last year, Californias Little Hoover Commission held hearings on CIRM. These revealed that, as the Sacramento Bee put it, this institute’s 29-member governing board is rife with potential conflicts; that it is overly large and unwieldy; and that it awards multimillion-dollar grants in a manner that favors secrecy over accountability. The hearings did not deal with scientific issues, which have been a problem from the beginning.
Klein sold the $6 billion state program through a campaign of exceptional intellectual dishonesty, as Robert Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times put it. Klein and other supporters promised cures and therapies for diabetes, Parkinsons, Alzheimers and other diseases, all through embryonic stem cell research funded by California taxpayers.
No cures are in evidence and the CIRM played no role in major medical-scientific achievements of recent years, including the construction of a new windpipe for a Colombian woman using adult, not embryonic, stem cells. CIRM has begun funding projects related to adult stem cell research, such as the $6.6 million it gave to the Salk Institute. That might be a better path to an actual cure or therapy but it stands at odds with CIRMs reason for existence. The Bush administration restrictions on embryonic research no longer exist.
CIRM now functions as another dumping ground for out-of-work politicians, a petri dish for patronage, as the Sacramento Bee put it. Some of CIRMs strongest supporters are wondering if California needs this kind of an institute. Thats a theme legislators, taxpayers and journalists should take up in 2010.