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LSDF's comparatively tiny budget should be easy to fund, given its role in the state's future

Don Brunell, retired president of the Association of Washington Business, summed it up best as we were discussing the perilous state of the fund whose purpose has for a decade been to promote the state's life sciences competitiveness.

"A $19 million expenditure in a $40 billion biennial budget is too small a percentage to even try to calculate," said Brunell, who as longtime president of the state's largest business association guided business's side of negotiations through four governors and two dozen legislatures.

"If it's a really important issue, as it seems the Life Sciences Discovery Fund (LSDF) should be viewed, you just take the $20 million out of a major-funded item," Brunell said, "particularly at a time when the state is experiencing an unexpected surge in revenue. It's not that difficult."

Brunell's comment, borne of years of playing the game of helping lawmakers reach budget goals while finding a way to save the most important business items in the final budget, is an important comment, since it's a thought that may still occur to the small group of legislators deliberating the final form of the state budget for the coming biennium.  

To be sure, there are a lot of smaller programs whose supporters are seeking to pressure lawmakers to safeguard in the final budget."Molehills vs. the 'mountain' of holding off new taxes," as one prominent business friend of mine, whom I respect but disagree with on this, put it in referring to those various programs.

That current LSDF funding of $19 million a biennium is the small remainder of the $400 million tobacco-settlement money from which LSDF was established in 2005 by the Governor and Washington's Legislature. The goal of the fund was to support innovative research in this state to promote life sciences competitiveness, enhance economic vitality, and improve health and health care.

The challenge for LSDF at this point is that while the money to sustain its funding for another biennium is in the House (Democrat) budget, and strongly supported by the governor, there is nothing for the agency in the Senate (GOP) budget, and there apparently is even Senate talk of taking back some of the money already granted.

Word leaked out earlier this week that the four budget negotiators (a Democrat and a Republican from each house) had reached a tentative deal on the total size of the budget. That's the first step before lawmakers begin tinkering with details, hammering out individual items (like the funding for LSDF's survival) and, of course, reaching some compromises before the hard deadline at the end this month when the biennium itself ends.

There is some belated talk, but probably not nearly enough of it, from business leaders about hammering the Senate with the reality that Republicans can't abdicate the image of supporters of entrepreneurs and innovation to a Democratic governor and Democratic House members.

Brunell was one of a half dozen major business-community figures I had talked within the past week to get a sense of the depth of understanding of and interest in the LSDF and its purpose. And Brunell admitted, as others have, that he was only vaguely aware of LSDF's role (which is visible mainly to the biotech industry and its supporters) or that it was in danger of disappearing, assuming that if it was an important business issue, Republicans would be watching out for it.

 

Brunell, who in his retirement now produces a regular column that appears in several dozen newspapers, seemed struck by the lack of visibility on what he agreed seemed vital to future of an emerging industry in this state.

Noting that there are a number of issues whose backers are bombarding supporters to press their legislators, Brunell said "I am pummeled with emails and contacts from wildlife and recreation and the folks wanting a carbon tax, but besides you I am not hearing from LSDF advocates. But supporting LSDF seems like a no-brainer."

It's important to share that my belief in the importance of LSDF comes, as is usually the case, from personal involvement and commitment. I had only been generally aware, as a journalist, of LSDF and its background and role.

Then I became involved in actively supporting an emerging biopharma company named M3 Biotechnology, believing in its potential dramatic impact if it gains FDA approval for a drug that would reverse neurodegenerative diseases, and in the CEO, Leen Kawas, who has been guiding the company's successful growth.  

As one whose wife suffers from Parkinson's Disease and with a father who died of it, and relatives and friends who have Alzheimer's, the company was a natural one.

It was as a result of involvement with the company that I learned the importance of LSDF, since the then just-launching M3 received grants from LSDF that allowed it to bridge what's referred to as the funding "Valley of Death," the financially challenging period from birth of a company to the successful initial funding round.

 

I also researched what states are doing to attract biotech, which this state's sound and fund has largely substituted for commitment, and learned that others are spending millions of dollars to attract and grow what they realize will be a key economic pillar in the future.

"M3 isn't the only company that needed the LSDF funding to survive until finding conventional funding," said Chris Rivera, CEO and President of the Washington Biotechnology and biomedical Association.

"Legislators tell me 'if we give LSDF $19 million, we'll have to take it away from somewhere else," Rivera said. "And I reply, 'if LSDF goes away, and the industry begins fading and the economy is being impacted in this state a result, you'll be doing a lot more looking somewhere else to make the cuts that will be necessary.'"

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