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Biotech greenhouse for Pittsburgh may be in state bill

Tuesday, November 21, 2000

By Frank Reeves, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The state Legislature could consider as early as today a plan to establish biotechnology greenhouses in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and central Pennsylvania.

One goal of the multimillion-dollar effort, modeled after the Pittsburgh Digital Greenhouse, would be to forge a partnership among universities, private companies and the government to foster a flourishing biotech industry in Pennsylvania.

The Ridge administration views the so-called greenhouse model to be a 21st Century economic development tool that builds on the typical approach of simply using tax incentives, land acquisition and job creation programs to assist industry.

The biotech greenhouses would be paid for out of the $11.2 billion in tobacco settlement money the state expects to receive over 25 years.

For much of this year, the Ridge administration and state lawmakers have been deadlocked over how to allocate the money.

Ridge wants to use it to finance low-cost health insurance for uninsured state residents, anti-smoking programs, hospital reimbursements for unpaid care, health research and home services for senior citizens.

He also has proposed using a portion of the settlement money to create a public-private investment fund to help fledgling biotech firms.

But forging a plan that satisfies a majority of lawmakers and the governor in this election year hasn't been easy. Democrats, for example, have wanted to use a large chunk of the tobacco settlement money to pay for a prescription-drug plan for senior citizens -- something GOP legislative leaders and the Ridge administration have resisted.

So far, Pennsylvania has received about $463 million in tobacco settlement funds, but that can't be spent until the Legislature authorizes its usage. Another large chunk is due early next year.

The Ridge administration and lawmakers are working to hammer out a tobacco-settlement bill before the Legislature adjourns for the year. Unless lawmakers act before Nov. 30, the cutoff date for the current legislative session, consideration of asettlement bill would have to wait until next year.

The proposal to create biotech greenhouses was thrown into the mix in part to build support for the overall tobacco-settlement bill. Discussions are still under way as to how much would be allocated for the biotech greenhouses -- a key factor in how many eventually are established.

Ridge had originally proposed that $60 million be used to finance the biotech investment fund.

People familiar with the negotiations said that plan had been modified a bit: The fund would still receive $60 million, but in one lump sum, rather than spread over three years, as Ridge had suggested.

The Pennsylvania Biotechnology Association has been lobbying hard for passage of the settlement bill and creation of the public-private biotech venture fund in particular.

Unless Pennsylvania actively promotes biotech, the trade group fears the state could find itself outpaced by such competitors as Maryland, New Jersey and North Carolina.

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