By DAVID SALEH RAUF
ANNAPOLIS (April 1, 2011) House and Senate budget writers once again are debating how much the state should spend to fund a program that's helped make Maryland a national leader in stem cell research.
The issue is one of a cluster of differences between respective budget plans from both chambers that need to be hashed out in the coming days by a panel of House and Senate members.
Top fiscal lawmakers from the two chambers have disagreed annually on how much money should go to a program created in 2006 that promotes state-funded research for stem cells. Money for the program, called the Maryland Stem Cell Research Fund, comes through an appropriation in the state budget.
The Senate historically has sought to trim Gov. Martin O'Malley's proposals for the program, while the House has backed the governor's requests.
This session, the House again agreed with O'Malley and set funding for the program at $12.4 million. The Senate slashed $2 million in its spending plan, keeping funding for the program flat.
"This is a prudent approach to continue to protect our strengths in this area," said Sen. Richard Madaleno, D-Montgomery. "This is a prudent approach to continue to fund research that is unique to the institutions of our state while at the same time recognizing we don't have money for everything."
The conference committee's discussion on how much the state should spend on stem cell research comes as the program experiences record demand to fund researchers. State officials who help run the program announced earlier this year they received 180 applications for the 2011 funding cycle, a 28 percent increase compared to last year.
"Obviously there is great demand for this research money," said Delegate John Bohanan, D-St. Mary's. "This is an industry where Maryland is at the forefront and we don't want to derail that."
The program is crucial, Bohanan said, because it provides hope for people stricken with incurable diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson. Some 400 stem cell transplants were performed last year, he said.
The program, which officials tout as the third largest state-supported stem cell research program in the country, also has proven to be a solid job creator for Maryland.
A study released last year by Baltimore-based economic consulting firm Sage Policy Group determined the program created about 500 direct and indirect jobs in Maryland during its first two years.
But it also has critics. House and Senate Republicans unsuccessfully tried to scrap all funding for the program during budget debates, arguing that private sector money and federal funds can now support the research.
"The flow does not show signs of stopping," Delegate Ron George, R-Anne Arundel, said during a House budget debate last month."We do not need to do it with tax dollars. The investments are there."
Maryland has dedicated more than $78 million into the program since it was created five years ago. But funding has been cut by about 43 percent since it reached a high of $23 million in fiscal 2008.
Last year, the House conceded to the Senate's request to reduce $2 million from the governor's proposal, funding the program at $10.4 million. Bohanan said House leaders are going to fight to keep the program's funding "robust."
"If it's at 10 (million) it's not the end of the program by any stretch," Bohanan said." My guess is we're not going to settle for 10. We'll end up at some number in between or fully fund it."
The conference committee delayed a decision on funding the stem cell program during its first meeting Thursday. The panel is scheduled to meet again Monday.