Student loan agency plan has stem-cell restrictions added

Saturday, September 23, 2006

The details about stem-cell research were added by the Missouri Development Finance Board.

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Human embryonic stem-cell research could be restricted at university buildings financed with the proceeds of Missouri's student loan agency, under the latest version of Gov. Matt Blunt's higher education plan.

The details about stem-cell research were added at the last moment to an agreement approved earlier this week by the Missouri Development Finance Board, the entity that would receive $350 million from the student loan agency and pass it on to colleges and universities.

The Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority is scheduled to vote on the plan next Wednesday. On Friday, it considered postponing the vote because of recent turnover but decided not to.

Opponents of embryonic stem-cell research on Friday praised the inclusion of the restrictive language, while the University of Missouri system -- the largest beneficiary under Blunt's -- expressed disappointment.

"The University of Missouri would prefer not to have restrictive research language placed on university buildings," said Joe Moore, a spokesman for the four-campus system.

Under the new version of Blunt's plan, colleges and universities would have to provide "written assurance" to the development finance board -- before receiving any money -- that the facilities financed with the funds would comply with the restrictions included in a 2003 state law.

That law was originally intended to govern money distributed through a special life sciences research board, which has yet to pass out any funds. The law prohibits money from going to research in which cellular material is taken from a human at any stage in development from conception onward. That encompasses embryos created through in vitro fertilization. The law also prohibits money from going to "human cloning," which opponents say could cover a procedure viewed as an attractive option by some embryonic stem-cell researchers.

The purpose of the 2003 law was to prohibit state money from going to embryonic stem-cell research, said Larry Weber, executive director of the Missouri Catholic Conference, who helped shape the measure.

Legislators had linked the 2003 restrictions to the buildings that would be financed through Blunt's plan under a bill that failed to pass during their session that ended in May.

Blunt and Republican legislative leaders later agreed to use that bill's project list as a basis for his revised plan, which is now pending before the MOHELA board. But until this week, Blunt's revised plan had not included the restrictive language about stem-cell research.

In fact, a draft of the plan provided Monday by the development finance board did not include the restrictions. But the version approved by the board Tuesday did.

The change was made after several lawmakers suggested Monday that the restrictive language was essential if Blunt's administration was to remain true to its pledge to base the plan on the failed legislation, said Mike Mills, deputy director of the Department of Economic Development, under which the finance board is located.

"We're going off pre-existing statutes that everyone may not be exactly happy with," Mills said. But "this language was well-vetted as part of the life sciences trust fund language and that [2003] bill was broadly supported by the life sciences industry."

Missouri's life science debate has evolved tremendously since 2003. Last year, some lawmakers made a strong but unsuccessful effort to outlaw the cloning procedure that could be used for embryonic stem cell research. In response, supporters of the research are sponsoring a constitutional amendment on the Nov. 7 ballot that would guarantee all federally allowed stem cell research can occur in Missouri, including on early human embryos. Blunt supports that ballot measure.

If enacted, the amendment could supersede the restrictive language adopted by the finance board as well as the underlying law. The coalition supporting the ballot measure did not have any immediate comment Friday about the MOHELA arrangement.

The inclusion of restrictive language in Blunt's higher education initiative outraged some lawmakers who back embryonic stem cell research.

"What an embarrassment that would be for the state to have these buildings that they can't do the modern research in," said Sen. Joan Bray, D-St. Louis, who opposed Blunt's plan even before the addition of the stem cell restrictions. "It's not only embarrassing, it's appalling."

Blunt's plan would fund 23 construction and equipment projects at state universities, as well as improvements at the state's 12 community colleges. Many of the buildings are related to the life sciences, including the biggest project -- a Health Sciences Research and Education Center next to the hospital at the University of Missouri-Columbia. But there is nothing in Blunt's plan indicating the exact type of research that would be conducted at the facilities.

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