Discerning the difference between lawmaking substance and political theater hasn’t been easy for us scribblers at the 2016 Legislature. For instance: Was it substance or theater when freshman GOP Rep. Abigail Whelan got a hearing on a bill to withhold $14 million for medical research from the University of Minnesota unless and until it ceased using fetal tissue obtained through abortions?

It’s just theater, I thought, as U folk fretted that legislative interference would disrupt potentially lifesaving and disease-curing investigations.

That bill is in for a chilly reception in the DFL-controlled Senate, I observed. And if by some hook-or-crook maneuver it wound up in a final bill, it would be stopped cold by Gov. Mark Dayton, who personally engineered a $30 million state funding boost for medical research just last year.

“No, they’re serious!” the university crowd hollered when Whelan’s bill got a second hearing. An alarm went out to alumni, who fired off e-mails and phone calls urging hands off medical research. The big guns — President Eric Kaler, medical school dean Brooks Jackson — came to the Capitol to play defense. Higher Education Commissioner Larry Pogemiller appeared in the State Office Building to convey Dayton’s displeasure.

The bill went behind the Legislature’s curtain for “possible inclusion” in the House’s higher-ed spending bill. When it first emerged on April 15, gone was the threat of a $14 million penalty if the university did not end the use of fetal tissue derived from abortions. What amounted to a ban on the use of such tissue remained.

Then on April 19, an amendment arrived at the House Ways and Means Committee, and university lobbyists looked relieved.

The ban had been replaced with a directive that researchers obtain permission from a review panel before using aborted tissue, and that the panel “consider whether nonhuman tissue would be sufficient” for proposed investigations. Further, the medical school is directed to seek fetal tissue derived from miscarriages, not abortion, for research purposes, and the Office of the Legislative Auditor is directed to look over the Medical School’s shoulder as it does.

That language doesn’t thrill university officials. They hope it evaporates in conference committee. But if it sticks, they concede, they can probably live with it.

Was that mini-drama one of (too many) examples of political theater at the 2016 Legislature, in this case staged by Republicans for the benefit of their anti-abortion allies? Or was it real legislating, producing something that could — maybe — be signed into law by a DFL governor?

I was a skeptic. But now I’ll call this an attempt at genuine lawmaking and send kudos to those who engineered the modifications to Whelan’s measure. Reportedly, that included House Ways and Means Chair Jim Knoblach and Speaker Kurt Daudt, who became personally involved in the issue.

It might be said that, to Daudt’s credit, he lived up to an intention he’d declared 16 months ago as the newly elected speaker in a politically divided Legislature. He said he didn’t want the House to waste time pursuing partisan measures that had no chance of enactment with DFLers in charge in the Senate and the governor’s office.

What I heard next from the U made me wish Daudt had applied that intention before hearings on Whelan’s bill began.

The report: Simply airing that bill in two House committees was enough to cost the university its preferred prospective head of the medical discovery team (MDT) combating a terrible scourge: addiction. The lost candidate’s name was withheld, but an excerpt of his letter declining the university’s job offer was shared. It said: “For my wife and I, the recent legislative issues surrounding the MDT reminded us of the many risks inherent in moving our family.”

The university may have fended off the loss of $14 million. But the Whelan bill still cost Minnesota medical research a lot.

Rep. Bud Nornes, the House higher-ed funding chair, rejected any suggestion that his decision to take up the Whelan bill damaged the university’s ability to hire top talent.

“I would not take responsibility for that,” Nornes said. “That would be theirs. If they lost [someone] it had to be for reasons other than this issue, I’d say.” He typically offers a hearing to any higher-ed bill sponsored by any member of his committee, he said. “We don’t serve as a censor.”

Maybe somebody should.

Other legislatures around the country are hearing a clamor from abortion foes to curtail researchers’ access to aborted fetal tissue, and in at least eight states, legislators have heeded those calls. But those aren’t states that are home to a sizable medical device industry, or a research university with a brand-new Biomedical Discovery District, or a world-renowned Destination Medical Center. They aren’t putting their futures at risk to the degree Minnesota will if it damages its reputation for unfettered pursuit of biomedical knowledge at its premier research institution.

Doing that for the sake of political theater would be unconscionable. Doing it for the sake of the moderated but still-meddlesome provisions that remain in the House higher-ed bill? It may be real lawmaking, but it’s still a bad show.


Lori Sturdevant, an editorial writer and columnist, is at lsturdevant@startribune.com.