State pulls back on stem cell funding
by by Josh Margolin and Ted Sherman/The Star-Ledger
Sunday June 22, 2008, 3:33 PM
Eight months after state officials broke ground on New Jersey's new center for stem cell research, the once-heralded $150 million project has quietly been put on indefinite hold.
Despite continuing assurances that the 18-story tower in New Brunswick would remain on track -- even after voters rejected proposals last year to finance $450 million in stem cell science grants -- state officials behind the scenes pulled back millions in construction funding for the research facility late last year. They now acknowledge they are re-evaluating the entire project.
Gov. Jon Corzine said the project is in limbo and could not offer a concrete timeline for getting it restarted.
"I'd like to have a director and I'd like to see what our options are on making sure that New Jersey continues to be the leader, or among the leaders on biotech research -- particularly as it relates to stem cells," he said. "And then we'll work together on our rollout of what our plans are."
As of now, the Stem Cell Institute of New Jersey is little more than a web page and scattered lab research in three existing locations.
Under the joint oversight of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey and Rutgers University, UMDNJ officials say more than 50 faculty members from both universities are doing grant-funded stem cell research through the institute.
The site of the proposed research center itself, though, is just a gravel parking lot with a lone sign featuring a drawing of a building that now may never be built.
In October, Corzine and others put shovels in the dirt for a ceremonial groundbreaking of what was to be called the Christopher Reeve Pavilion. Surrounded by relatives of the late actor, who became a strong advocate of stem cell research after he was paralyzed in a horse-riding accident, Corzine predicted the new center would serve as a nexus of cutting edge science.
"To the future!" he proclaimed, turning a silver-colored spade in a boxed patch of loose dirt.
A few weeks later, though, the project was abruptly halted after the failure of a controversial ballot initiative to borrow nearly half a billion dollars to fund the actual research.
The statewide bond proposal -- bloated by Trenton lawmakers to include money for four additional research centers in Camden, Newark, Belleville and Allendale -- was unexpectedly turned down by voters. Many blamed the rejection on anger with the state's borrowing, fanned by a vigorous campaign by conservatives and religious leaders staunchly opposed to stem cell research on moral grounds.
New Jersey has been pushing for years to become a center for stem cell research -- even before Corzine made it a central plank in his campaign for governor in 2005.
Stem cells have the potential to develop into many different types of cells in the body and scientists believe they hold the key for developing cures and treatments for now hopeless ailments like Lou Gehrig's disease and Alzheimer's. Economists for Rutgers University also say investment in such research would generate billions in economic activity.
A CHANGE IN PLANS
After the bond issue was rejected, senior administration officials said publicly that the New Brunswick research facility -- which had already incurred more than $2.3 million in planning expenses -- would proceed as planned, using money previously earmarked by the state.
The Legislature in 2006 had authorized the state to borrow up to $270 million in construction costs for the five stem cell labs across the state. At the same time, NJ Transit continued planning work on a federally funded, $10 million platform extension to serve the new research tower.
With the failure of the bond issue, discussions were initiated within the administration to save the New Brunswick lab by shelving the other four research facilities that had been added by the Legislature under political pressure and using the $120 million earmarked for that construction to pay for the actual science, according to senior administration officials.
But last November, the administration pulled back a funding proposal before the state Economic Development Authority, which was ready to approve $3.7 million in preliminary expenditures for the Reeve Pavilion. EDA officials refused last week to discuss the issue, referring all calls to the governor's office.
Many officials, however, were unaware the project has been put on hold. Rep. Frank Pallone (D-6th Dist.) referred to the "ongoing construction" of the stem cell research center in congressional hearings he chaired last month.
U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who has been pushing for federal transit aid for the site by convincing federal officials that the stem cell institute would yield hundreds of high-tech, well-paying jobs for Central Jersey, was surprised to learn the project was halted months ago. He said he would go back to federal officials and try to convince them to apply the money to another New Jersey project.
"The money just can't hang out there forever," Menendez said. "It's obviously a disappointment because it is exactly the type of entity we're trying to attract to New Jersey -- high-end jobs with low impact on the state's services. And we want to be a center for research and development excellence."
Marie Tasy, executive director of New Jersey Right To Life and a prominent opponent of the stem cell labs, said voters "clearly spoke loud and clear last November" in voting down stem cell research funding and said the project should be abandoned. She said the initial construction funding for New Brunswick was done without ever going to the public.
"They put the cart before the horse. They assumed the people of New Jersey would support the research," she said. "At the time, it made no sense at all."
Tasy said they should use any money already appropriated to reduce the state debt.
Senate President Richard Codey (D-Essex), who has championed stem cell research funding long before he served as acting governor in 2004-05, conceded that the defeat of the bond issue last fall effectively killed construction of the institute, despite public statements to the contrary. Once the voters turned down the referendum, Corzine and his staff felt that proceeding with the institute would be perceived as a slap in the face, Codey said.
"It's unfortunate but it's obviously the governor's decision to make and, hopefully, it can get back on track," Codey said.
Asked whether the administration should have proceeded because the money had been approved by the Legislature, Codey said "that's a decision that he (Corzine) made. I respect it. I understand it. I'm not going to second-guess it. Am I disappointed? Sure. I want to save lives. Of course I'm disappointed, but not with him."
Thursday, June 26, 2008
at 1:21 PM