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Special guests on hand for the convening of the new session of the Massachusetts Legislature yesterday included (from left) former House speakers George Keverian, Thomas M. Finneran, Charles F. Flaherty, and Robert H. Quinn. Along with policy, ceremony marked the day.
Special guests on hand for the convening of the new session of the Massachusetts Legislature yesterday included (from left) former House speakers George Keverian, Thomas M. Finneran, Charles F. Flaherty, and Robert H. Quinn. Along with policy, ceremony marked the day. (Globe Staff Photo / David L. Ryan)

Stem cell bill tops agenda as Legislature convenes

Travaglini vows push on research

Democratic leaders on Beacon Hill vowed yesterday to immediately push legislation to promote stem cell research in the Bay State, hoping to blunt the appeal of California's $3 billion investment in stem cell research.

Opening a new legislative session, Senate President Robert E. Travaglini used his inaugural speech to call for "immediate passage of a comprehensive stem cell research bill."

Aides to Travaglini said that the details have not been worked out, but that he will probably propose a bill that goes beyond the general statements of support in legislation that foundered over the past two years and instead may provide tax incentives for companies that do the research.

"This issue has languished for too long," Travaglini said. "In the eyes of many, we have lost ground in our competition with states such as California, New Jersey, and North Carolina. With swift action during this legislative session, we can regain a competitive edge in this area."

In remarks to reporters shortly after Travaglini's speech, House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi said, "I agree with him 100 percent."

"I think stem-cell research is one of the most important things that we can do to generate the biotech industry, to generate an atmosphere where businesses and people can invest their money here in Massachusetts and create jobs," DiMasi said.

A spokeswoman for Governor Mitt Romney said that he also supports stem cell research, but that he would have to look at a specific proposal before endorsing state spending on it.

In November, California voters approved a $3 billion bond issue to provide up to $300 million a year in grant money for the next decade for stem cell research. In New Jersey, a public-private partnership is expected to produce $50 million in research funding over the next five years. Michigan and Wisconsin are also considering spending state money on stem cell research.

Most state legislatures are convening this month for the first time since last fall's elections, so the fallout from the California vote is not yet apparent. But Jody Ruskamp, a policy analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures, predicted yesterday that California's action will add a sense of urgency to stem cell debates around the country.

President Bush has blocked federal money to any scientists using human embryonic cell lines produced after August 2001. Many research centers are circumventing the restriction by tapping private money, but in the absence of federal support biotechnology companies are more likely to locate or expand in states that explicitly support or help pay for the research.

DiMasi's predecessor as House speaker, Thomas M. Finneran, was widely credited with quashing the stem cell measures the Massachusetts Senate approved over the past two years. The Catholic Church and antiabortion groups lobbied heavily against the stem cell bills, which endorsed the use of embryonic stem cells in research, but didn't provide state funding. Now Finneran, a social conservative who opposes embryonic stem-cell research on moral grounds, heads the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, which is strongly in favor of the research.

Finneran, who resigned as speaker last September, is barred by state ethics rules from lobbying for a year. But he said yesterday that his group is likely to be involved in the debate again this year.

"I haven't changed my position, but it's obviously been an issue that the Biotechnology Council is concerned with and is supportive of," he said. "They were thrilled when the Senate took it up last year. They were a little disappointed that the House did not embrace it in the same way."

Stem cells -- which are found in embryos, umbilical cords, and some adult tissues -- have the potential to develop into a range of muscles, organs, nerves, and other types of tissue in the body. But researchers are most interested in stem cells from human embryos, because they are the most versatile. Among other things, those cells may be able to repair and regenerate damaged tissue and organs, such as spinal cords severed in accidents.

Scientists can get embryonic stem cells from embryos produced by human cloning, germ cells from aborted or miscarried fetuses or embryos, unused in vitro fertilized embryos, and existing stem-cell lines already developed for use by researchers.

The stem cell proposals the Senate has approved explicitly permitted the use of embryos in research, but banned the use of cloning to produce human beings. Nevertheless, opponents believe the use of embryonic stem cells is wrong, because those embryos could develop into fetuses.

"You don't take a human life in order to cure someone else," said Marie Sturgis, legislative director of Massachusetts Citizens for Life.

Daniel Avila of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of the Catholic Church, said the Legislature shouldn't be in a rush to deal with such a complex issue.

"To put this through on such a fast track to keep up with the Joneses in California and Wisconsin is problematic in itself," Avila said. "We look forward to presenting our message and encouraging people to look long and hard, certainly at the moral issues, but also at the process itself."

In his remarks yesterday, Travaglini framed his call for a stem cell initiative as a means to encourage jobs in Massachusetts, which has seen a slight drop in population in a recent census report. However, the biotechnology industry has a wide range of interests. Large biotech companies such as Genzyme Corp. and Biogen Idec Inc., both in Cambridge, aren't directly involved in stem cell research.

If Travaglini chooses to add state spending to the stem cell initiative, the request would compete with other demands on the state budget. Lawmakers and some budget specialists are forecasting a shortfall of up to $900 million in next year's budget.

Aside from the stem cell issue, lawmakers are preparing for a busy, two-year session that is expected to include proposals to expand healthcare coverage, to ban same-sex marriage, and to increase the minimum wage. DiMasi reiterated his support of same-sex marriage, but he said he hasn't taken the pulse of the House on the issue.

The beginning of the legislative session was dominated by ceremony, not policy. Romney, who strained his relationship with the Democratic majority by raising $3 million to increase Republican ranks, moved between the House and Senate to give lawmakers of both parties the oath of office.

If hostility to the governor lingers, it was not evident yesterday: Romney received polite applause in both chambers.

The last time Romney visited the House chamber, in September, he was caught off guard when DiMasi gave him a huge bear hug. Yesterday, spotting DiMasi as he approached the rostrum, Romney threw up his arms and told the speaker, "I need my hug." DiMasi gave him a warm embrace.

The speaker has told his colleagues privately that the only thing he got from his previous hug with Romney was frostbite. Yesterday he was feeling a lot warmer. "You're getting to be a huggable guy," he told Romney.

Scott Greenberger can be reached at greenberger@globe.com.

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