Mo. lawsuit asks court to clarify stem cell limits

Monday, June 30, 2008 | 6:44 p.m. CDT; updated 12:26 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — The governor’s former chief of staff filed a lawsuit Monday on behalf of embryonic stem cell research critics that seeks to delay spending from a state life-sciences research fund.

Missouri Roundtable for Life, represented by former Blunt aide Ed Martin, wants the courts to intervene before the state provides $21 million to the Life Sciences Research Board. Specifically, the lawsuit asks whether existing limits on using the fund’s money for certain types of research are trumped by a 2006 constitutional amendment endorsing stem cell research.

Voters in 2006 approved a constitutional amendment that guarantees stem cell research legal under federal law is also legal in Missouri. It also bars lawmakers from docking an entity’s budget because it conducts embryonic stem cell research.

A hearing on whether to issue a temporary court order to block state money from going into the life sciences fund is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. Wednesday in the Capitol’s home of Cole County.

The Life Sciences Research Trust Fund was created in 2003 to spend one-quarter of Missouri’s annual tobacco settlement proceeds, which typically are received in spring. The law creating the trust fund bars spending for abortion services and human cloning. Nonetheless, House members have had several contentious debates in recent years about whether to include it in the state budget money for the trust fund.

Critics of doing so have expressed fears about the money going toward human embryonic stem cell research, which they oppose.

This year, lawmakers included $21 million in the state budget that takes effect on Tuesday. That appropriation specifies that the money can be used “exclusively on animal science, plant science, medical devices, biomaterials and composite research, diagnostics, nanotechnology related to drug development and delivery, clinical imaging, and information technology related to human health.”

Martin was replaced as Blunt’s chief of staff last November. The governor was one of the few Republicans to publicly support the 2006 stem cell research constitutional amendment. Martin, a St. Louis attorney, had been active in anti-abortion litigation before joining Blunt’s staff.

The lawsuit names as defendants State Treasurer Sarah Steelman; the state Office of Administration, the Department of Economic Development and their respective directors; the life-sciences trust fund and its board; and the Missouri Technology Corp. and its executive director.

Martin said Monday it is unclear whether the law limiting the use of the life-sciences trust fund still applies or whether the 2006 constitutional amendment trumped it. He said it’s also unclear whether the budgetary restrictions mean that a researcher, school or hospital that gets some state funds must always receive at least that amount of money.

For example, Martin said, it’s uncertain whether a researcher who gets a grant from the fund must get that amount of money each year.

“Until we know what it means, taxpayer dollars and public funds should not be transferred from the treasury,” Martin said.

A spokesman for the Missouri Coalition for Lifesaving Cures, which supported the 2006 stem cell amendment, called the lawsuit an attempt to sideline state support for life sciences funding. Donn Rubin, the coalition’s chairman, is also the chairman of the board of directors for the Missouri Technology Corp.

“There is nothing in the stem cell amendment that changes the Legislature’s ability to choose to fund or not to fund the life sciences,” coalition spokesman Jim Goodwin said.

Rob Monses, the executive director of the Missouri Technology Corp., did not immediately return a phone call for comment about the lawsuit. The technology corporation is a quasi-state entity that helps private businesses link with universities, particularly emphasizing research in the life sciences and other high-tech areas.

A spokeswoman for Steelman said the treasurer’s office has not yet been served with the lawsuit and declined to comment.

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