Stem cells have taken center stage in California.  In November 2004, California’s voters approved, with 59 percent of the vote, a measure that would spend three billion dollars in borrowed state funds to pay for research that requires the destruction of human embryos.

You might expect a heated debate over whether such research is morally acceptable—and whether the state government should be in the business of paying for it, especially with a bond measure, and especially given the state’s precarious financial footing.

A few pro-life groups opposed the initiative, as did many fiscal conservatives, but they spent little money, and it’s hard to overcome the star power of Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who lent his massive credibility to the plan.  With the death of Christopher Reeve, and with the widely publicized claims about the potential for this research to solve every medical problem under the sun, it was unreasonable, perhaps, to expect California’s voters to reject Prop. 71.

Now that the election is over, some obvious problems are coming to the surface.  Californians are getting the broader debate that should have taken place before November.  Democratic Sen. Debra Ortiz, who strongly backed Prop. 71, introduced a bill that would give state legislators some oversight of the stem-cell spending process.

That proposal was attacked instantly by Bob Klein, the Palo Alto real-estate developer who was named head of the institute created by the initiative.  “There are very clear prohibitions against legislative intervention and rule-making and funding,” Klein said, in a December 7 Los Angeles Times article.

Critics were correct, then.  The $300 million that will be spent each year on research from the initiative will be spent in an unaccountable fashion.  Ten of 27 board members have been named, but the public and its legislators will be kept out of the loop.

State Sen. Tom McClintock, the Simi Valley Republican who ran in the 2003 gubernatorial recall election, was one of the few voices speaking out before the initiative passed.  He focused on the ridiculousness of a state already in deep financial doo-doo maxing its credit card to pay for something of this nature.

McClintock and others also noted the obvious potential for corruption when government officials get to reward private firms with billions of dollars in funding.  Money will go to the politically well-connected rather than to the most promising cures.  Some board members themselves are involved in the biotech industry, according to published reports.

Prop. 71 backers are debating the merits of Klein’s leadership.  “We’re setting up an echo chamber here where we’re only going to hear from people who agree with each other,” said Marcy Darnovsky, associate executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society, in a December 14 Los Angeles Times article.

Of course, this initiative has always been about politics rather than science.  The goal of Klein and his backers was to get around President George W. Bush’s awkward compromise on stem-cell research.  As one of Klein’s top supporters told the Times: “[T]hroughout his career, and most recently as chairman of the Proposition 71 campaign, Mr. Klein has demonstrated an understanding of the politics of science.”

To cynics, there is a bright side in the politicization of this money.  As my colleague, Orange County Register editorial writer John Seiler, put it in a recent Register blog entry: “The more money wasted, the fewer babies will be killed and dissected.  Ideally, the mad scientists involved will blow all the money on Ferraris, long vacations in Tahiti, beach-front mansions, and stocking their wine cellars, with no money spent on the actual ‘research.’”

That might be the best we can hope for at this point.