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California voters will be asked this November to spend big on stem cell research, an expensive proposition that could help find cures for debilitating diseases but also put the state deeper in debt. 

The measure (Proposition 14) on the Nov. 3 general election ballot seeks $5.5 billion in bonds for the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), a public agency that distributes hundreds of millions of dollars each year to promote medical advances through the study of rudimentary human cells. 

In 2004, Californians approved a $3 billion bond measure, Proposition 71, to create CIRM on the promise it would spur innovation for therapies for a range of ailments, from Alzheimer’s disease to immune system disorders. That money is running out, and CIRM says it would cease its Oakland, Calif.-based operations next year if Proposition 14 fails. 

If the measure passes, the state could be paying off the investment in stem cell research for another 30 years starting in 2026—$7.8 billion with interest, or $260 million a year, on average, according to the state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office. That’s on... see more