Dec 14 2006

Now state should invest in UAB

Birmingham News

THE ISSUE: With Congress taking a year off from passing out pork, the state should step up to help fund the biomedical research center expansion.

It shouldn't be all or nothing. But, like it or not, that's how Congress has decided to approach next year's budgets and the billions of dollars in earmarks (commonly called pork) that usually go with them.

The Republican-controlled Congress this year practically redefined "do-nothing," meeting the fewest days in recent history and accomplishing little in the few days it met, including failing to pass nine of the 11 major spending bills. Democrats were given the task of completing the work when they return to control of the House and Senate in January.

The Democrats, however, decided they'd rather not fiddle with Republican-written appropriations bills and, instead, will simply keep federal spending at current levels and do away with all those earmarks.

It's hard to blame the Democrats; there were more than 15,000 separate earmarks worth more than $50 billion in the unfinished bills, and the Democrats didn't want to come off as big spenders just as they're resuming control of Congress.

While some of the earmarks do qualify as frivolous, many are necessary and worthwhile, such as the federal money designated for the biomedical research center at UAB.

UAB's Shelby Interdisciplinary Biomedical Research Complex has received $60 million in special federal funding already through the efforts of U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Alabama. The complex is named for Shelby and his wife.

The complex was supposed to get $30 million more next year, but that's not going to happen. What that means for second-phase construction at the complex is uncertain, but it does underscore the need for more robust state investment in biomedical research at UAB.

While much of the research at UAB has national and, indeed, international implications, the federal government shouldn't be the main public funder. The jobs being created at UAB most directly affect the economy of Alabama. Don't forget that UAB is the state's largest employer.

Gov. Bob Riley says he has been looking for a way for the state to invest big money in UAB. Why not pick up the cost of the expansion at the biomedical research complex? The state sent $50 million to Huntsville not long ago for a new research center there. Such an investment in an existing, nationally ranked research center at UAB should be an easy decision.

Shelby, meanwhile, is likely to push for further federal investment in UAB in the 2008 budgets, but that's still a year away. Until then, Riley should help keep the momentum going at UAB.