Reading the Props 14 Stem Cell Bonds Reproduce Themselves

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

Every two years, I read the full text of all statewide ballot propositions—because at least one Californian should. OK, it’s possible that others may read the text, but I’m the only one stupid enough to admit to doing so publicly. 

I do this because Californians too often vote on their feeling about an issue on the ballot—as though these were opinion polls—without recognizing that they are actually acting as lawmakers, and thus voting on real laws and constitutional amendments. I try to consider each ballot measure as a document, in all its particulars. 

This series will start with Prop 14.

Prop 14 is not the longest measure on the ballot, but it is the most incoherent. The California Stem Cell Research, Treatments, and Cures Initiative of 2020—its official title—runs to 16,000 words, more than twice the length of the U.S. Constitution. It is a citizens’ initiative to change state law.

The measure’s purpose is to extend the life of California’s stem cell research agency, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, which was created in 2004 by another long, and complicated ballot initiative. To do that, the initiative would authorize $5.5 billion in general obligation bonds for the agency. CIRM has less than $150 million in funds left.

That’s highly significant borrowing in an emergency. And the first stem cell bond did not produce the cures that the 2004 campaign promised. But more troubling, the length and complexity of the measure is excessive that it’s hard to know what unhappy surprises may lie within. 

For example, one very long section on intellectual property appears to change how royalties from inventions that come from CIRM moneys are spent. The measure also does not permit easy amendment by the legislature or other bodies to fix any of these details or they go wrong. 

Even if you’re a believer in stem cell research, there’s a decent chance that this will create problems and unintended consequences that can’t be fixed. That’s also what happened with the original 2004 ballot initiative.

One more idea occurs here: Right now, millions are behind a yes campaign on Prop 14, but there is $0 behind the No side. Perhaps California needs to start appointing and funding campaigns against measures, when no such campaign materializes. People really do need to hear two sides, especially when they are voting on complicated scientific research policy involving billions of dollars.

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