SACRAMENTO — The Assembly on Monday passed a bill to require convicted prostitutes to be tested for the AIDS virus after a coalition of Republicans and dissident Democrats came within one vote of embarrassing Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) by withdrawing a similar measure from a committee.
By a 65-8 bipartisan vote, the lower house approved the legislation, which was hastily drafted on the floor when it appeared that the coalition might succeed in withdrawing from a committee a similar bill that had been pigeonholed.
If it had been successful, the withdrawal move would have been a political embarrassment to the powerful Assembly Speaker and eventually could have led to a more serious attempt to oust him from his post. A forced withdrawal of a bill from committee is considered an affront to a house's leadership because it violates the committee system, which is regarded as sacrosanct.
Afterwards, both parties claimed victory, but it was clear that the challenge was not over. The GOP served notice that it will try to pry other controversial bills out of committee--with or without the Speaker's help.
Assembly Minority Leader Pat Nolan of Glendale said, "We got the policy through that we wanted." Asked about the possibility of continuing efforts to embarrass Brown, Nolan said: "There are certain policy issues that are bottled up in committee and we want to explore the possibilities of getting enough Democratic votes to get those out."
In a characteristic boast, Brown declared: "They're interested in the speakership and I still have it. I've always been safe. Nobody surprises me. I'm full of surprises."
Meanwhile, in a related AIDS matter, the Senate Appropriations Committee voted 8-0 approval of a bill by Sen. John Doolittle (R-Rocklin) that would require every new convict entering the state prison system to be tested for exposure to the AIDS virus.
In addition, the measure would authorize the Department of Corrections to conduct such testing on the existing prison population and to develop a plan to hold those who test positive in segregated housing.
The same committee also endorsed a second Doolittle bill that would require physicians to test pregnant women for exposure to acquired immune deficiency syndrome, unless the patient refuses in writing to take the test. Refusal would become part of the woman's medical record, but would not apply to future pregnancies.
Results of the test would remain confidential, but if a physician failed to offer the test, the doctor would be subject to a misdemeanor charge. Both bills were sent to the Senate floor.
However, the committee rejected a proposed amendment to the state Constitution that would allow businesses and individuals to claim a tax credit of up to 55% on contributions made to a special fund that would have been created to finance research into the prevention and cure of AIDS.
The measure, opposed by the Deukmejian Administration, was aimed at providing June primary election voters with an alternative to an initiative sponsored by supporters of political extremist Lyndon LaRouche. Among other things, the initiative would provide for the segregation of people exposed to the AIDS virus. An Administration spokesman objected that the tax credit legislation would cost state coffers $33 million a year.
Monday's floor action on the bill requiring AIDS testing for convicted prostitutes capped two weeks of skirmishing between Brown and the so-called "Gang of Five" Democrats, who say they want the Assembly reorganized so that controversial bills with strong public support don't die in committee.
"It worked," said Assemblyman Gary A. Condit (D-Ceres), a Gang of Five member. "We won the policy issue on the floor."
In the last two weeks Brown has stripped four of the five dissidents, including Condit, of key committee posts to punish them for not going along with all his leadership decisions.
The Speaker claimed that he was just making committee reassignments in order to streamline the work of the Assembly.
The AIDS testing bill, now sponsored by Assemblyman Bruce Bronzan (D-Fresno), would require people convicted of prostitution to be tested for the AIDS virus. If the test turned out to be positive and the tested person subsequently was convicted again of prostitution, it would be a felony rather than a misdemeanor offense.
It is similar to a measure by Assemblyman Steve Peace (D-Chula Vista), one of the dissidents, that was bottled up in the Public Safety Committee, primarily because of opposition by some liberal Democrats who contended that it unfairly singled out a group of politically powerless people.
Nolan, who made the motion to withdraw the measure, called AIDS a "modern-day plague that stalks our streets." If a person contracts AIDS, he added, that person "faces certain death."