Maryland will become the fourth state to authorize tax dollars for embryonic stem cell research when the governor signs a bill approved yesterday by the General Assembly.
Supporters hailed the plan as a boost to the hopes of the chronically ill as well as to the state's biotechnology industry and scientific community. Advocates had urged lawmakers to follow the lead of California, New Jersey and Connecticut - states that have established funding plans in the wake of a federal ban on research involving embryonic stem cells.
"We've done the right thing for our state, not just for the people who are here today, but others who are suffering," said Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat and leading proponent of stem cell legislation.
With a $15 million budget commitment effective July 1, the legislation establishes a clear process for reviewing research projects and allows the money to be used for the most promising proposals for study involving embryonic or adult stem cells. The House of Delegates approved the measure, which had already been adopted by the Senate, by a vote of 90-48.
"It is a major step in the right direction," said Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., adding that he plans to sign the bill into law.
Scientists hope that research using stem cells could lead to cures for diseases such as diabetes, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, as well as debilitating conditions such as paralysis.
Though other states have pledged more money, Dr. John Gearhart, a leading stem cell researcher at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, said that the $15 million, one-year funding commitment is a good start. The average National Institutes of Health grant for stem cell research is $250,000, he said.
Passage of the bill could neutralize what was expected to be a potent campaign issue for Democrats as Ehrlich, a Republican, seeks re-election in November.
Ehrlich had walked a fine line in supporting stem cell legislation this session. In a nod to his conservative base, the governor had insisted that funding should not be directed just to embryonic stem cell research, a controversial science that uses cells harvested from human embryos, but should be available equally for research using adult stem cells, which come from bone marrow.
Ehrlich had repeatedly insisted that legislation was unnecessary, supporting instead a $20 million budget proposal that gave the Maryland Technology Development Corp., a quasi-state agency, authority for administering grants. But within a half-hour of the bill's passage, the governor announced that he would sign it.
"Everyone moved to the administration's position," Ehrlich said. "I didn't think a bill was needed, but if a bill had to be passed, clearly this bill reflects our position."
Democrats still believe they have a case to make in alerting moderate voters that Ehrlich came late to the issue, allowing a filibuster threat to sink a similar proposal last year.
They say Ehrlich might have an eye on state polling numbers which show that stem cell research is popular among Democratic and Republican voters alike in Maryland. A November poll for The Sun showed that 60 percent of likely voters favor state funding for the science.
"For him to try to score political points on something that he provided no leadership on, and happened a year after it should've happened, it's pretty sad," said Maryland Democratic Party Chairman Terry Lierman.
James Gimpel, a University of Maryland professor of government, said he does not believe that Ehrlich's support for stem cell research will hurt him with his base, because it will not have a more conservative candidate to support in the governor's race.
Conservative voters understand that they're not going to get everything they want from a Republican governor seeking re-election in a state in which Democrats outnumber them 2-to-1, Gimpel said.
"It sounds like it's something Democrats dared him to veto, dared him to blink, and he didn't," Gimpel said. "I don't see how it could alienate him."
House Speaker Michael E. Busch, a Democrat who made stem cell research a top priority this year, said he sees Ehrlich's support for the bill as an election-year move to the middle of the political spectrum. He said Ehrlich will attempt to "run as a Democrat."
"I've seen it for four years; their shamelessness is beyond reproach," Busch said.
In 2001, President Bush restricted federal funding for embryonic stem cell research to existing cell lines, leading to a push among some state legislatures to fill the financial vacuum. California has committed $3 billion to research, though the state's progress has been slowed by legal challenges. New Jersey and Connecticut also approved funding commitments, and other states are debating the issue.
The Maryland bill began as a $25 million annual funding commitment, but that mandate was stripped to win support for the proposal in the state Senate. A requirement that embryonic stem cell proposals should receive priority funding was also dropped from the bill.
In an effort to placate religious conservatives, a provision was added to include two experts in biomedical ethics and religion to a 15-member commission that reviews proposals with the help of a panel of scientists. The ethicists with a focus on religion will be appointed by the governor.
Though he hailed the bill for sending "a signal to the academic world and to industry that Maryland is a place that's friendly to cutting-edge research," Jonathan Moreno, director of the Center for Biomedical Ethics at the University of Virginia, said the membership provision sets a bad precedent.
"Why should ethics be different if you're religious or not?" Moreno said.
Some religious conservatives, including leaders of the Maryland Catholic Conference who lobbied fiercely against the bill, liken embryonic stem cell research to abortion, because an embryo must be destroyed.
During debate in the House of Delegates yesterday, however, Del. A. Wade Kach, a Baltimore County Republican, said he could support the latest version of the bill because it allows the commission to determine which proposals hold the most promise. He noted that the bill authorizes the use only of embryos that would otherwise be discarded by fertility clinics.
"So, why not, instead of discarding them, use them for good?" Kach said.
Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, a Republican from Southern Maryland, said some believe that adult stem cell research has shown greater promise. He urged Maryland residents not to misinterpret a vote against the bill as a member's lacking compassion.
"Reasonable minds can disagree," he said.
After the vote, advocates seated in a second-floor House gallery, including sick children and their parents, raised a large, yellow banner reading: "Thank You For Hope." Many delegates rose to their feet and applauded in their direction.
Later, in front of the State House, supporters embraced one another. Some shed tears.
Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, a Baltimore County Democrat who was the sponsor of the Senate bill, smiled as she descended the State House steps to greet the citizen-advocates who worked for two years to see the bill passed.
"Yay!" she said, to their applause. "Thank you all."
Later, in front of a bank of television cameras, John Kellerman, a Parkinson's patient who has sat in the balcony through many General Assembly debates on the matter, read a statement thanking lawmakers, lobbyists, his family and more for backing the bill.
Kellerman told them they are helping him reach his dream of dancing at his daughters' weddings.
"It's a glorious day," Kellerman said, his hands trembling as he held his prepared remarks, his cane resting on his forearm.