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LSDF may metamorphose into life science, cancer research administrator

Recrimination and agitation over the Republican-led legislative defunding of the Life Science Discovery Fund Authority (LSDF) has given way to cautious enthusiasm about the possibility its staff and board may be tapped to administer and oversee funding activity for the state's new Cancer Research and Endowment Fund (CREA).

It's not yet certain that LSDF, created a decade ago out of the state's share of Tobacco Settlement millions to promote growth of the life science industry in this state, will take over administration of what would be a Center of Excellence for Life Science and Cancer Research. But bringing that about could amount to creating some vision out of what has been legislative confusion.

The Legislature's 2015 final budget compromise funded the cancer-research entity in a head-scratching manner while killing future funding for LSDF. But the lawmakers did not put the organization itself out of business because LSDF must function well into the next biennium to oversee fulfillment of the 46 grants already awarded from the fund. It just can't make any more life-science grants.

The quixotic aspect of the Legislature's creation of CREA was that the lawmakers gave specific detail to its board makeup and duties and required that it contract with "a program administrator" to oversee grant solicitation and distribution and fund management.
 
But lawmakers didn't designate who would manage the $10 million annual state-fund grant that would have to be matched from the private sector before it could be spent, so there has been speculation since then that LSDF would be a logical entity to oversee CREA.
 
Rep. Jeff Morris 

The proposal to turn cancer-fund administration over to LSDF has been up in the air since it was approved by the state House and passed out of committee in the Senate, but stalled in the Senate Ways & Means committee when the regular session ended.

Democratic Rep. Jeff Morris, a member of the LSDF board and sponsor of the proposal, said he hopes the legislation paving the way for a new role for LSDF will be part of final budget negotiations. He explained that Sen. Andy Hill, chair of the Ways & Means Committee and the key Republican in the negotiations, "asked if we would object to a 6 percent administrative-cost cap and I indicated we would not."

John DesRosier 
eanwhile, as a future role for LSDF remains unclear, its board of trustees, staff members and a number of recipients of its grants will gather March 25 to celebrate the contributions of John DesRosier, who served first as director of programs when LSDF was established in 2005, and through most of the Authority's existence as executive director. DesRosier, who has retired, had spent almost a quarter century in research and technology commercialization before joining LSDF as it was forming.

Among those who will be on hand to thank Des Rosier is Lee Huntsman, the first executive director, who was appointed by then-Gov. Christine Gregoire after LSDF was established in 2005 by Gregoire and the Legislature.

I asked Gregoire for a comment on the decade of LSDF's existence and on DesRosier's role and she said: "LSDF has accomplished more than I could have hoped. I believe it has helped save lives and I believe it will continue doing so and there is no greater accomplishment. We were fortunate to have John DesRosier as the leader to make it happen."

Commenting on DesRosier's role guiding LSDF, Morris said "John was one of the best strategic hires I've seen by our state in my years of public service. He made our grant-selection process world class and many other states have looked to our process to improve their own performance"

Part of what the cancer-fund legislation envisions is a board that better reflects an understanding of cancer, but by coincidence that comes somewhat with the current board, whose chair is Carol Dahl, executive director of the Portland-based Lemelson Fund. 

Dahl's research while a faculty member at the University of Pittsburgh was cancer focused and she also spent nearly six years at the National Cancer Institute and built the Office of Technology and Industrial Relations and multiple programs there during that period. 

Asked about her view of DesRosier's role, she said he"has truly been an amazing advocate for the life sciences in Washington and an outstanding steward of the state's investment in LSDF."

"The substantial impact of the LSDF funding resulting in over $60 million in health-care saving, more than a half billion in follow-on funding, and hundreds of lives saved ,is a credit to John's leadership and the dedication of the entire staff that has supported  LSDF since its inception," Dahl said.

One of the largest grants from LSDF was $5 million to Omeros Corp., which related to a $20 million partnership with Vulcan to advance the company's leading-edge G protein-coupled receptor program. GPCRs, which mediate key physiological processes in the body, are one of the most valuable families of drug targets.

Omeros chairman and CEO, Dr. Gregory Demopulos, described LSDF as "an important catalyst for innovation in Washington State's life sciences. And through investments like the one for Omeros has left a legacy of creating jobs and improving health and will have a sustained impact on the people of the state."

DesRosier described LSDF as having been a "critical resource" in helping early stage companies survive so they could gain traction for new sources of funding, including attracting traditional investors.
 
One such beneficiary of LSDF grants is M3 Biotechnology, a young Seattle biotech company focused on commercializing a drug that would reverse neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's by re-growing brain cells.
 
"LSDF funding allowed us to cross the start-up 'valley of death' until we could gain funding traction," said Leen Kawas, the 30-year-old CEO and president of M3 who recently announced completion of an over-subscribed A-Round that brought in nearly $10 million.

Because I was assisting Kawas with marketing and introductions while she was awaiting key grants from LSDF, I bit my lip for being unable to write about LSDF or its challenges with the legislature until her grants had been approved and there was no longer a conflict of interest.

I asked DesRosier if there was anything he wished LSDF had accomplished before the lawmakers struck it from future funding.

"I wish we had been able to create a more diversified revenue stream and not be dependent solely on state funding," he said.

Dr. Bruce Montgomery, perhaps the Northwest's most prominent biotech entrepreneur as well as the longest-term member of the LSDF board, may have best summed up the feeling of lost opportunity that the end of LSDF's life-science mission embodied for many.

"The best quote I can offer is the line from Joni Mitchell's 'Big Yellow Taxi': 'don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you got 'til it's gone,'" Montgomery replied to my request for a quote.
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How new state cancer-research fund came about in the 2015 Legislature

 

The tale of how Sen. Andy Hill, a near-miraculous survivor of lung cancer and the powerful Republican overseer of writing the Senate's budget, helped guide funding to create a new state cancer-research fund might have been the story of a legislator's personal cause and vision brought to reality.

Instead, what has begun to emerge is a tale of more typical legislative ineptitude, because most observers aren't really sure what the Hill-guided budget inclusion of a Cancer Research Endowment Fund brought about or why it was carried out with the intrigue and confrontational politics that occurred.

One certainty is that Hill was a key architect of a Republican conviction that funding needed to end for the decade-old Life Science Discovery Fund, which provided grants to an array of emerging life science and biopharma companies and some viewed as a logical administrator of a new cancer-research fund.

So in the end the Legislature's 2015 final budget compromise killed funding for LSDF but did not put the organization itself out of business.

Meanwhile, the legislation creating the new cancer fund, referred to as CARE, was approved with a $5 million matching grant this year and a $10 million matching grant next fiscal year and thereafter to fund cancer research in this state. Maybe.

But before any of the grants can be made, there must first be "proof of non-state match," meaning there is no certainty that any of those state dollars will actually be spent without the emergence of entities seeking to match the grants.

For reasons many outside of the political arena couldn't quite understand, Republicans, with Hill as a leader of the viewpoint, didn't like the concept of funding startups while Democrats were strong supporters of LSDF and the potential jobs grant-recipient companies might create.

But Hill apparently, on more than one occasion, suggested that the administrative structure and staff of LSDF, including its well-regarded Executive Director John DesRosier, could become the overseeing entity for the new cancer-research fund. So perhaps Hill will explore that possibility.

Someone might have explained to Hill, a former Microsoft manager, that cancer research is a life science discovery activity and that rather than forcing the elimination of LSDF's funding in a bitter and controversial battle with Democrats who supported LSDF, he could have forced cancer research to be its new focus.

In fact, a proposed initiative, backed by organizations like the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, that failed to gain enough signatures to make the ballot last year would have created a large pool of dollars, funded by tobacco-tax increases, a fund that would have been administrated by LSDF as an added responsibility.

And Rep. Ross Hunter, the Democrat who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee and also a cancer survivor, had led an effort in the 2015 session on behalf of a bill with a similar goal of establishing a cancer-research fund with dollars from an increase in the tobacco tax, but the bill never got through the committee challenges.

Hill's 2009 conquest of stage 3 lung cancer, including a pronouncement at one point that it was terminal before his treatment with a new targeted therapy left him cancer free in a matter of weeks, is a remarkable story that would have made his support for a meaningful step to fund cancer research laudable and a cause for broad support.

Hill made it clear that one of the reasons he ran for office in the fall of 2010 was to "advocate for continued scientific research and development of life saving and life altering therapies."

In the end the relatively small amount that the CARE fund provides isn't in the same ball game that commitments like the $200 million lawmakers in neighboring Oregon approved to support a $1 billion public-private effort to bring the nation's top cancer researchers to Oregon.

And Oregon is only one of the states that have made such major commitments to cancer research.

One of my friends long involved in watching legislative machinations offered an analysis of what occurred: "You kill LSDF which uses OPM (other people's money, i.e., the tobacco settlement), and then appropriate precious few taxpayer dollars and create a new entity to do close to the same thing LSDF does, or did. 

"Why not have kept LSDF and directed that $5 million or $10 million of its existing funds be focused on cancer research specifically?" 

The kind of money the Legislature approved is a relative pin prick being thrown at cancer research at random, to be run by an entity that doesn't even exist yet, but will require some overhead to become operational.

What the Legislature created may have been the only potential state expenditure that could have gotten through a group of lawmakers whose Republican members were adamant about not spending anything that would mean new taxes, and that would presumably include funding cancer research.

Thus what Hill was able to get support for winds up as a pale shadow of the potential $1 billion that Initiative 1356, which failed to gain the signatures needed to make the 2014 ballot, would have raised for cancer research through a dramatic increase in the tax on cigarettes and other tobacco products, as well as marijuana.

If what really is only a gesture toward cancer research by the state at this point proves successful by any measure, it's possible that future legislative sessions may find the courage to step up to greater commitment in legislative support for the world-class cancer research and care that has developed in this state.
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State's Business & Occupation tax could get a look from Legislature as new-revenue source

The fact that it will take a two-thirds vote to get any new-tax measure through the state Senate this year could prompt lawmakers to take their first serious look in years at potential new dollars from the business and occupation (B&O) tax, the state's primary source of revenue from business.  

And if that happens, not only might some lawmakers be surprised at the disparity scattered among the nearly 30 categories of the B&O Tax -- Washington's unusual tax on gross receipts -- but it would also emphasize how out of sync the imposition of that tax is with the current-session's legislative mantra of "fairness."

After all, we have House Democratic Leader Ross Hunter, D-Medina, on the record with "when we are done, our tax system should move toward fairness." So lawmakers could decide there's some logical opportunity for new revenue from some of these categories while getting credit for looking to create fairness

Seeking revenue-producing changes in the B&O could be an attraction because

apparently the GOP Senate rule on two-thirds for any new tax allowed continuation of a simple majority for tinkering with existing taxes. 

 

This column's focus on the B&O tax is a topic that came to mind for me as a consultant who, with attorneys and accountants, pays a B&O tax under the "services" category, of .015 percent, basically $15,000 on $1 million of gross revenue, while our clients pay a tax of maybe $2,500, as the manufacturers' .00275 percent rate would impose. As publisher of Puget Sound Business Journal, I paid $3,500 for each $1 million of revenue.

An honest look at a tax structure where an attorney, accountant or consultant could pay a rate two or three times as high as a client they are advising might well provide additional tax revenue as part of creating tax fairness for all businesses.

But across the state tax spectrum, the fairness issue should also be weighed against the reality of why some tax breaks legitimately came about. Thus lawmakers need to evaluate, and perhaps restore at least some of the 20-year-old high-tech B&O tax credit, a tax break for five categories of tech business that expired as of January 1 this year.

It would be a mistake for the lawmakers to succumb to the temptation to merely pocket the nearly $50 million in revenue that the tax break cost the state, rather than seek to evaluate the changing value of the tax break to some of the five tech sectors to which it applied.

The challenge for legislators in evaluating either the B&O tax disparity or the tax break for high tech is in being able to understand the difference between tax breaks important to the economy and tax breaks that are merely the result of good lobbying.

And the manner in which the tax credit came about for high-tech research and development for advanced computing, advanced materials, biotechnology, electronic device technology, and environmental technology is an example of what was once viewed as an important-to-the-economy tax break.

The tax breaks for high-tech companies, both B&O and sales tax credits, were created by a Democratic legislature responding to the goal of creating jobs that came from a Democratic governor, Mike Lowry.

 

 "We were coming out of what was, at that time, the state's worst recession and we needed to attract industries that would produce good-paying jobs," Lowry recalled of the proposal he came up with and pressed through the 1994 Legislature as a way to lure new business to Washington.

 

And for Democratic lawmakers who have since sometimes come to refer to such tax breaks as "tax loopholes," Lowry still responds with his view that they are "incentives" that have permitted high-tech companies to avoid paying state sales tax on new facilities, including equipment.

 

"We were absolutely correct to come up with policies to lure companies to the state that would create high-paying jobs that were basically the jobs of the future," Lowry said.

 

And among those "jobs of the future" that still deserve nurturing is the biotech category, an industry that by all rights should be a third-leg of this state's economic stalwarts but that has lagged for several reasons. Removing the tax incentives on new facilities and equipment would be one more reason.

 

So back to the B&O tax, which actually came into existence in 1933 after the state Supreme Court threw out the income tax that lawmakers had passed in an effort to find new sources of revenue for a financially struggling state. The '33 Legislature adopted the gross receipts tax as a temporary, stop-gap move to balance the state budget.  

But the temporary, as in most legislative "temporary" moves, became permanent, though the rationale for creating B&O special treatment for one industry over another is lost in the antiquity of legislative deal making. But once that bridge was crossed, crafted from some handshake deal between one or more lawmakers and a lobbyist or two, the following special deals were somewhat like kisses: once the first one is bestowed in a relationship, the rest come much more easily.

Now, in a sense, some lawmakers are toying with what would likely be considered a form of tax on income with Democrats expressing an interest in taxing capital gains, saying it would make the state's tax system less regressive, and more fair (that word again).

Sen. Andy Hill, the Republican who chairs the Senate Ways and Means Committee as is thus the upper chamber's chief budget writer, has put down the capital gains idea, branding the phrase "regressive tax code" as a code-word for getting an income tax.

 

Voters have consistently rejected the idea of a state income tax, but it doesn't take too clever a legislative mind to realize that, even though any tax increase would almost certainly be sent to the voters, there might be a significantly different view of state residents about taxing capital gains than for taxing their own income.

 

And savvy lawmakers have a sense that a far more liberal State Supreme Court faced today with the question of whether a state income tax was unconstitutional or not, might well have a different answer than the one 82 years ago.

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