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AIDS Bills Don't Fare Very Well at State Capitol

October 04, 1987|RICHARD C. PADDOCK | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Gov. George Deukmejian and the California Legislature, faced with growing public pressure to halt the AIDS epidemic, finished the legislative year unable to agree on most major proposals aimed at slowing the spread of the disease.

This year, acquired immune deficiency syndrome moved to the forefront of the Legislature's agenda as lawmakers introduced dozens of AIDS bills. But most of the measures succumbed in an atmosphere of partisan politics--and fear among legislators that a controversial vote could be fatal to their careers.

"What we saw was the politicization of AIDS in a far more pronounced fashion than before," said Assemblyman Art Agnos, a liberal San Francisco Democrat whose comprehensive AIDS bill was rejected by the Senate. "Politicians are fearful about this disease as individuals and as public officials. They simply don't know enough to deal with their fear or the politics."

Role in 1988 Elections

At the other end of the spectrum, conservative Sen. John Doolittle (R-Rocklin), who has championed widespread testing for AIDS, said legislators are realizing the virus is a major public concern that will figure prominently in next year's elections.

"There's a much greater awareness of the AIDS issue and the impact it is having out there amongst the electorate," said Doolittle, whose own package of AIDS bills was shelved by the Assembly. "This is a watershed issue that will, and can, and must be addressed."

During the first year of the two-year session, Democratic and Republican politicians reached a stalemate on most of the crucial AIDS issues, blocking bills designed to teach teen-agers about AIDS, reduce the confidentiality of AIDS test results and prohibit job discrimination against those who have the disease.

In approving this year's budget, Deukmejian agreed to spend $63 million on a variety of AIDS programs--far less than the Democratic-controlled Legislature had wanted.

Bill on Drug Trials

The only major AIDS bill passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor in 1987 was a measure that carried few political liabilities: legislation that will allow thousands more AIDS patients in California to take part in experimental drug trials.

"We'll see experimental drug programs and research programs passed, but the hard issues around the policies of AIDS in the workplace, in schools, in discrimination, in all of the sensitive areas will be retarded by the fear and the politics," Agnos said.

Complicating legislative action on the AIDS issue, most victims of AIDS in California so far have been homosexuals and the disease has been spread primarily through sexual contact between males.

While concerns about homosexuality usually are left unspoken in the political arena, they surfaced during consideration of legislation by Sen. Gary K. Hart (D-Santa Barbara) that would have required schools to show an AIDS prevention video to junior and senior high school students.

Assembly Republican Leader Pat Nolan of Glendale, for example, protested that the videos would give impressionable young students a "how-to lesson in homosexual sex"--even though such films are made by organizations like the Red Cross and Walt Disney Co.

And Deukmejian, in vetoing the bill, said he was concerned that school districts "may find that the state-approved films contain material morally offensive to the local community."

Efforts to make tests for exposure to AIDS more readily available to college students was also stymied by the governor, but for a different reason.

Despite broad disagreement among legislators on the role of testing in stopping the disease, the Legislature approved a modest bill by Assemblyman Mike Roos (D-Los Angeles) that would have nearly quadrupled the number of test sites where individuals can receive an anonymous AIDS blood test either free or at a low cost. Up to 146 new test centers could have been opened under the bill, primarily on college and university campuses.

An estimated 300,000 Californians have been exposed to the AIDS virus, state health officials have said. Supporters of the bill pointed out that individuals seeking the anonymous tests at 53 existing centers must now wait weeks. Roos argued that college students, many of whom are sexually active, should have easier access to the test in the hope of stopping the spread of the disease in the heterosexual community.

But Deukmejian vetoed the bill, saying that opening more test centers would not be an appropriate use of funds because college students are not "generally considered high-risk individuals."

Although the 1987 session was marked predominantly by inaction on the AIDS issue, a significant shift in direction took place among legislators, particularly in the Senate. Support for protecting the rights of AIDS patients eroded, while lawmakers began to favor increased testing for exposure to the disease.

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