Social conservatives accuse Kelly of sowing confusion, stifling innovation on stem-cell veto

Legislature declines to challenge rejection of $500,000 for clinical trials

Former Gov. Jeff Colyer, a Republican candidate for governor in 2022, denounced Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly's veto of $500,000 for stem-cell research into potential treatments for COVID-19. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
Former Gov. Jeff Colyer, a Republican candidate for governor in 2022, denounced Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly's veto of $500,000 for stem-cell research into potential treatments for COVID-19. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer pressed in close to legislators, lobbyists and stem-cell treatment beneficiaries in April 2013 for a ceremonial photograph as Gov. Sam Brownback signed a bill championed by social conservatives and anti-abortion activists.

In that moment of optimism in the Capitol, there was a sense the new Midwest Stem Cell Therapy Center at the University of Kansas Medical Center would develop into a global presence in the field of adult stem cells research while rejecting use of embryonic stem cells viewed as unethical by the Catholic Church. Advocates were convinced cures and treatments emerging from this KUMC lab, driven by federal and private funding, would set the standard in regenerative medicine.

The Family Research Council’s David Prentice said the center would put “Kansas in a leadership position.” Board of Regents member Fred Logan predicted the lab would be “world-renown” for work that avoided destruction of human embryos.

“I am honored to sign this bill of hope and promise,” Brownback said. “Kansas will be the leader, which is fabulous in this burgeoning field.”

Now, Colyer is back in the picture along with Republican legislators who objected to Gov. Laura Kelly’s veto of a budget provision providing an extra $500,000 in tax dollars to the center. The money was to fund a small clinical trial on potential treatment for COVID-19. Colyer, a surgeon who served as governor for nearly one year after Brownback’s resignation, is seeking the GOP nomination for governor in 2022.

“Laura Kelly stifled medical innovation in Kansas by weakening our investment in medical research. This move limits the strength of Kansas health systems and sends the wrong signal to the national research community,” Colyer said.

He said the $500,000 would have helped fund a trial at the center using “ethically based adult stem cells.” The appropriation could have come from federal CARES Act funding, he said.

Kelly, who voted as a state senator against creation of the KUMC research center in 2013, was unmoved by arguments that additional state funding was necessary for the research center to jump into a coronavirus clinical trial. She was dismissive of a research project designed to involve only 10 patients.

“We should listen to those with knowledge of how clinical trials work when they tell us that the proposal outlined in this proviso is unrealistic and unneeded,” Kelly said. “We should focus on saving lives by expediting vaccinations for as many Kansans as possible throughout the state.”

Kelly is running for re-election as governor in 2022, and could face Colyer or Attorney General Derek Schmidt in the general election.

Kansans for Life, an anti-abortion organization with leverage among Republicans at the Capitol, said Kelly’s veto was “politically driven” and recommended legislators override the governor. KFL was among chief proponents of the bill creating the research center.

“Governor Kelly went out of her way to line-item veto this one small funding provision in the budget,” said Jeanne Gawdun, a KFL lobbyist. “As a state senator, she fought hard against the creation of the Midwest Stem Cell Therapy Center and its mission of finding groundbreaking cures through ethical research. Kelly was on the wrong side of this lifesaving science then and still is today.”

When the House and Senate convened Wednesday for the final scheduled day of the 2021 legislative session, no attempt was made to override Kelly’s veto on funding for the stem-cell research.

Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover, discouraged an override bid. He said Kelly’s comments about the budget item had generated too much confusion among lawmakers and cast doubt about whether KUMC welcomed the budget enhancement.

“I don’t think it’s a great idea — with KU coming out and saying, ‘We don’t need the money’ — for us to say, ‘Well, no, you’re going to take it anyway,'” Masterson told Senate colleagues.

Instead, he said, the Legislature could put the cash for stem-cell research at KUMC in a supplemental budget bill early in the 2022 session.

Masterson said in a statement with Sen. Mike Thompson, R-Shawnee, that it was unfortunate Kelly used her veto pen to undermine research on a potential treatment for acute cases of COVID-19. Masterson and Thompson said the next step would be to better inform legislators about why the supplemental funding was important. In the past, the Legislature has earmarked about $750,000 annually for the center’s work.

“Due to confusion created by the governor’s misleading veto message, we elected to further educate members  of the Legislature in the off-session,” the senators said.

They argued the Democratic governor provided misleading information on the cost of clinical trials, suggesting it would take millions of dollars to legitimately perform the testing. Thompson and Masterson pointed to reports the median cost of such a trial would be $41,000 — well within a $500,000 budget assuming 10 patients participated in the project.

Thompson said there was evidence a specific type of adult stem cell derived from the umbilical cord could reduce inflammation and help the body fight and repair damage. That might have application to people suffering from COVID-19, he said.

“Not only am I disappointed in the governor’s decision to undermine this ground-breaking research, but Kansans, as well as all citizens who have lost a loved one to COVID-19, will be devastated at the loss of opportunity to save lives,” he said.

The state government has invested about $5 million in the stem-cell center, mostly for salaries and research supplies, because KUMC provides laboratory space.