Friday, July 21, 2006

$5 million to fund stem cell research

Governor bypasses lawmakers again

Crystal Yednak
Chicago Tribune
July 21, 2006

For a second straight year, Gov. Rod Blagojevich used his executive powers Thursday to order millions of dollars in state funds to be used for stem cell research, bypassing a state legislature conflicted on the controversial issue.

Acting just a day after President Bush issued his first-ever veto in rejecting an expansion of federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, the Democratic governor ordered $5 million be available for grants on top of $10 million he announced last July.

Illinois Senate Republicans accused Blagojevich of again subverting the will of the legislature, which has been sharply divided on the issue--particularly embryonic stem cell research. Lawmakers objected to Blagojevich's efforts to specifically earmark stem cell research funding in the state budget they approved in May.

As he did last July, Blagojevich justified his move as an effort to help advance medical progress. He has used populist health-related initiatives, such as expanded children's insurance coverage, as a cornerstone of his re-election campaign.

Blagojevich said Bush's actions made it clear that "stem cell research will get no support from Washington as long as he occupies the White House" while state lawmakers "had yet to back a plan" for providing research support.

"It would be wrong to ask sick and injured people and their loved ones to wait for the tides in Springfield and Washington to change before research into potentially life-saving cures can move forward," he said.

Blagojevich aides said they could not determine how much of the $5 million would go to grants involving embryonic stem cells--the most politically controversial aspect of stem cell research--until the recipients were selected. Some conservatives, including Bush, oppose embryonic stem cell studies because they involve the destruction of human embryos.

Senate Republicans said the Illinois legislature has answered the governor on this issue.

"The General Assembly has on at least two occasions debated this issue and rejected it," said Patty Schuh, spokeswoman for Senate Minority Leader Frank Watson (R-Greenville).

Last July, after failed legislative attempts to set aside money for stem cell research, Blagojevich announced that he would fund such grants using $10 million that had been tucked into the state's budget under the generic heading of "scientific research." The line item did not mention the words stem cell, which angered opponents who said Blagojevich was trying to circumvent the legislature.

After that experience, Sen. Dale Righter (R-Mattoon) said he asked directly this year on the Senate floor whether this year's budget would include any funding for stem cell research.

Sen. Donne Trotter (D-Chicago), the top budget negotiator for Senate Democrats, said he told Righter that the budget didn't contain money for stem cell research because there was no specific line item for it.

Trotter said the governor was able to find $5 million in the administrative budget of the Department of Healthcare and Family Services for stem cell research, partly because the cost of implementing All Kids, the governor's health-insurance plan for children, and other health programs was lower than projected.

"This wasn't our original intention during the budget process," said Blagojevich spokesman Abby Ottenhoff. "But in light of the president's veto yesterday, it's really the only option to make sure that stem cell research continues."

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