Ehrlich torn on stem cell funding

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ANNAPOLIS — Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is undecided about whether to veto legislation to give at least $23 million to embryonic stem-cell research because the money is not enough to keep and attract biotechnology companies, a top aide said yesterday.

“It is a minuscule amount of money,” said Paul E. Schur-ick, the governor’s policy adviser and communications director. “Things would be different if it would have a more meaningful impact on the research.”

Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican, is also concerned about the state government’s meddling in biomedicine, Mr. Schurick said.

Maryland is one of several states to consider paying for stem-cell research since restrictions were placed on federal funding for such programs.

California voters last year approved a referendum to spend $3 billion in the next 10 years on such research. New Jersey last year earmarked $380 million for a stem-cell research institute. And other states — including Connecticut and Wisconsin — are considering measures similar to Maryland’s.

Supporters of the Maryland legislation say it will help retain and expand the state’s thriving biotechnology sector.

“The top scientists in biotech are going to move to the areas” that fund stem-cell research, said House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat and co-sponsor of the bill. “They will tell you that $23 million is not in the same ballpark as California, but it is a step in that direction.”

Proponents say the research could lead to new treatments for spinal-cord injuries, diabetes and other diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Some researchers think they can find cures for the injuries and illnesses by manipulating the ability of stem cells to morph into specialized cells and tissues.

Opponents say destroying human embryos to harvest the stem cells is akin to taking a human life.

House lawmakers vote 81-53 Monday in favor of the bill, which restricted research to stem cells from embryos discarded in the in-vitro fertilization process at fertility clinics.

The $25 million Senate version of the bill likely will face strong opposition in the Budget and Taxation Committee. And pro-life legislators, Democrats and Republicans, are expected to filibuster if the bill reaches the full Senate.

“The faith community has really been on me about this,” said Senate Majority Leader Nathaniel J. McFadden, Baltimore Democrat and member of the budget and tax committee. “It is going to be very tough. It has been rolled into the same contentious debate of the past — the pro-choice, pro-life debate.”

He said the bill “barely” had a chance.

Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, Baltimore County Democrat, has said a Senate majority supports the bill, but yesterday, her staffers were still looking for enough votes to prevent the filibuster.

Delegate Samuel I. Rosenberg, Baltimore Democrat and lead sponsor of the bill, said stem-cell research has “extraordinary potential,” particularly with the biotechnology companies already in Maryland.

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