Our View: Institute is a petri dish for patronage

The $150,000 raise that Art Torres received last week when the directors of the state's stem cell agency voted to triple his salary may not seem large next to California's immense budget deficit.

But it is symbolically very significant. It's the latest example of how people who owe their livelihood to California's taxpayers refuse to share in their pain.

Torres was named co-vice chairman of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine in March.

The former state senator and California Democratic Party chairman was chosen for two reasons: He needed a job, and the Democratic constitutional officers who get to nominate candidates for CIRM's top posts made him their pick.

Torres is also an experienced political operative, which the agency needed to improve its frayed relationship with the Legislature.

Torres took the job on a half-time basis, for which he was paid $75,000.

For that, he has apparently improved CIRM's relations with both the Legislature and the state treasurer's office, which sells the general obligation bonds that finance the agency's research projects.

But that hardly justifies the decision to raise his pay to $225,000, in return for 80 percent of his time.

Both the agency and Torres have scrambled to justify the bump.

They've pointed out that he would be filling a legislative-affairs position, that he'd be spending more of his time on the job and would be forgoing his state legislative pension.

None of those explanations holds water.

The reality is that this is a simple matter of a well-connected politician getting special treatment. While it's not in any way illegal, it's impossible to justify in a state with a $20 billion structural budget deficit and a growing bond debt burden.

CIRM leaders continue to claim that it is vital for California to spend billions of dollars on this science, even though the new administration in Washington is funding forms of stem cell research that the previous one restricted.

But when the institute spends money like this, taxpayers have to wonder: Does California still need a stem cell institute -- one with this type of leadership?

Editorials are the opinion of the Merced Sun-Star editorial board. Members of the editorial board include Interim Publisher Debra Kuykendall, Executive Editor Mike Tharp, Editorial Page Editor Keith Jones, Copy Desk Chief Jesse Chenault and Online Editor Brandon Bowers.