In an unprecedented move, the executive committee of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce has voted unanimously to adopt a $125 million bond issue by the University of Alabama at Birmingham for its Comprehensive Cancer Center as its top legislative priority for 2007. In previous years, the chamber’s legislative agenda did not place priorities on individual support items.

The move, reported to the chamber’s board of directors at its meeting Jan. 18, comes just two months after Gov. Bob Riley chastised Birmingham leaders at the chamber’s annual “Luncheon with the Governor” for not being able to reach a regional consensus on its legislative priorities. The executive committee of the Birmingham chamber is the agency’s policy-making body, and the vote was unanimous.

“We heard the governor clearly,” said Gerald Johnson, the chamber’s vice chair for public policy and vice president of Alabama Power Company’s Birmingham Division. “Governor Riley has told us now several times that Birmingham needs to come to Montgomery with one voice,” Johnson said.  “This is a significant first step in that direction.”

UAB’s funding request for its Comprehensive Cancer Center also has been endorsed by the entire Jefferson County legislative delegation, the Jefferson County Commission, the Birmingham City Council, Birmingham Mayor Bernard Kincaid, and the Jefferson County Mayors Association.

All of these individuals signed a statement in support of the request, noting that “the infusion of these resources will help ensure that this nationally recognized program remains among the top cancer centers in the United States for patient care, research and discovery; contributes to the state of Alabama’s economic development; and continues to benefit the health of Alabamians for years to come.”

The request, which is UAB’s top funding priority with the governor as well, seeks $125 million in additional state funding for recruitment and program growth for the Comprehensive Cancer Center, which is expected to create more than 375 new positions at UAB.

In past years, the Chamber has developed as its legislative agenda a long list of items supported by the business community and a handful of issues to be monitored.

“We have never ranked the agenda items in order of importance,” said Paul Vercher, vice president of public policy at the chamber. “In the past, all of the bills under our ‘Support’ agenda were considered as having equal priority. The governor’s comments made us re-think our strategy.”

The UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center has been Alabama’s primary source of specialty cancer care, training for cancer specialists and excellence in leading-edge research since 1972. Until just a few years ago, it was the only cancer center in the Southeast to receive the “comprehensive” designation by the National Cancer Institute, and remains one of only 38 such centers in the United States.

The center has provided state-of-the-art cancer treatment to thousands of Alabamians since its inception and has provided prevention and early detection services to thousands more, especially in the under-served communities of Alabama’s Black Belt region. The center has trained several hundred cancer specialists, many who still practice throughout Alabama. And, the center has been responsible for scientific and medical breakthroughs that have led to improved treatment and outcomes for cancer patients.

The Comprehensive Cancer Center has been the primary catalyst for the tremendous research growth of the UAB Medical Center and is responsible for fully 25 percent of extramural research funding at UAB.

Cancer is a top research priority for the UAB School of Medicine as the school strives toward its goal of becoming one of the Top 10 nationally in funding from the National Institutes of Health. The School ranked 18th in FY2005 with $191 million in NIH funding. School officials say that moving into the Top 10 will require the recruitment of some 200 new faculty, plus capital equipment and facility upgrades.
The regular session of the Alabama legislature convenes March 6.