Research Funding By Popular Vote: The Mechanisms Matter

Last Tuesday voters in California had the usual collection of voter initiatives to consider, in addition to the primaries for elected offices.  More popular in the western U.S. than the rest of the country, initiatives are policy measures brought to the ballot via signature petitions.  States have their own guidelines, histories, and classes of requirements where initiatives are concerned, and it is possible that measures approved by the state legislature may be put to a vote of the people (usually called a referendum).

One of the initiatives on last week’s ballot was Proposition 29, which would increase the state’s tobacco tax by the equivalent of one dollar per pack of cigarettes.  Three quarters of the proceeds of this tax would be dedicated to various trust funds supporting research on lung cancer and other diseases with a connection to smoking.  All of the proceeds would be held outside the state’s General Fund.  At the moment, the initiative will not pass, but with the margin against passage is currently less than 30,000 votes results are not yet official.

This is not the first effort in California to use the ballot box to ensure funding for a specific area of research.  In 2004, voters approved Proposition 71, which established a right to conduct stem cell research, required the state to fund stem cell research via a research institute (The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine), and authorized ten years of funding via bond issue.  It passed with nearly 60 percent of the vote.

I’ll defer to others to compare the political campaigns for and against both initiatives to determine relative strengths and weaknesses, differences in state politics over the intervening 8 years, and other questions more likely to be debated on the opinion channels.  I do think it worth noting that the funding mechanisms are notably different, and the differences in these policies are not trivial.

In the case of the stem cell effort, there is a limited-term source of funding (such bonds are often used to fund construction projects), without a special tax.  With Proposition 29, the funding would be perpetual, and the tax revenue could not be used for other purposes without another statewide vote.  It’s a more permanent and inflexible policy choice compared to the stem cell funding mechanism.

I am not claiming that had Proposition 29 proposed a different funding mechanism than a permanent chunk of the tobacco tax that it would have succeeded.  There are too many factors at play to suggest the funding mechanism was the critical element in the success or failure of either initiative.  But I do believe it a better policy choice to go with something that is temporary and/or automatically reviewed every so often to allow for change.  For instance, if California’s tobacco consumption decreased precipitously over the years following the passage of Proposition 29, having an automatic review process could help adjust to the shrinking revenue stream.

So, if you’re devising an initiative to support research funding, I recommend spending as much time on how the research will be funded as on detailing the reasons why that research needs funding.

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