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updated 2:54 PM CDT, Jul 28, 2018

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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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