Stem Cell Institute of New Jersey

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Stem cell research plan put on ballot with fanfare
Corzine signs resolution, backed by top advocates

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Friday, July 27, 2007
Star-Ledger Staff

Calling stem cell research an engine for medical science and economic development, Gov. Jon Corzine yesterday signed legislation that gives residents the chance to vote on spending $450 million for stem cell research grants.

During a ceremony at the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation in West Orange, Corzine was joined by political leaders, scientists and rehabilitation experts, who hailed the referendum.

"We have been on the cutting edge and we're going to stay there," said Corzine, whose campaign for governor was based, in large part, on his support for state-funded stem cell research. "Our moment is now and it's in November. ... I can't tell you how excited I am."

Corzine said he would campaign personally for the referendum (A3186), which will appear on statewide ballots on Election Day, Nov. 6.

Among the crowd of more than 150 who packed a Kessler auditorium was the mother of the late actor Christopher Reeve, who became a national spokesman for stem cell research after a horse-riding accident left him paralyzed more than a decade ago. The New Jersey stem cell institute, which has already been approved, is going to be named for Reeve, officials said.

"It's an emotional day, a wonderful day," said Reeve's mother, Barbara Johnson of Princeton.

The governor was also joined by Carl Riccio of Warren, who suffered a spinal cord injury while wrestling for Watchung Hills High School in 2003 and is quadriplegic. Riccio has been a key ally on the issue since he appeared in a Corzine campaign commercial in 2005.

Senate President Richard Codey (D-Essex) and Assemblyman Neil Cohen (D-Union), the two lawmakers who spent years pushing stem cell programs through the Legislature, were cheered during the ceremony yesterday.

"For the baby born with leukemia," said Cohen, "for the senior citizen who in the sundown and the golden ages of their life can't remember the joys of their times because of Alzheimer's ... for those who have been ravaged by diabetes."

"Stem cell research," Cohen said, "holds hope."

Codey, who made stem cell research a priority of his 14 months as governor, told the crowd: "On Election Day, I say to all of you, the first thing is vote 'yes' on stem cell research. And then vote Democratic."

Critics have opposed the state's stem cell research plans, saying they are immoral because the cells often are harvested from human embryos.

After the ceremony, Marie Tasy, executive director of New Jersey Right to Life, issued a statement, saying: "Our lawyers are looking very closely at possible deceptions in the ballot language, especially the fact that this is about taxpayer-funded human cloning. ... This boondoggle will add $37 billion to our state debt."

Such criticisms are unfounded, Corzine said, because the state will eventually make money from jobs and investment dollars that will flow in as a result of the new research industry.

"The dollars invested here," the governor said, "will have payback."

The bill allows voters to be asked to approve a bond issue to finance up to $45 million per year in stem cell grants over 10 years. It replaced a proposal approved by the state Senate (S1091) to provide $230 million in grant support.

Last month, Corzine and top legislative leaders reached agreement on the referendum. The money would pay for the researchers who will work in the stem cell institute's new science labs -- a strategy Corzine said repeatedly will keep the state "on the cutting edge" of the emerging technology.

Separately, the state Economic Development Authority approved $9.1 million in June for design and pre-development costs of the proposed Stem Cell Institute of New Jersey in New Brunswick, a $150 million research institute expected to take about three years to build. The institute will also run satellite facilities in Newark and Camden.

The new stem cell center is scheduled to occupy five floors of a 16-story University Research Tower to be built by Rutgers University, the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey and Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in downtown New Brunswick.