Gov. George Deukmejian, declaring that "compassion for the victims of AIDS" is not reason enough to rewrite anti-discrimination laws, announced Monday his veto of legislation aimed at preventing AIDS patients from being fired or denied housing.
The action, which was denounced by the bill's author as "a hysterical invitation to discrimination," was in line with Deukmejian's veto last year of an equally controversial bill aimed at preventing job discrimination against homosexuals.
In both cases, the governor said there was too little evidence that these groups faced discrimination, and that existing law is sufficient to protect those who are unfairly fired from their jobs.
Assemblyman Art Agnos (D-San Francisco), a leading advocate of homosexual rights issues and author of both measures, said Deukmejian's latest veto reflects "his extraordinary and incomprehensible isolation from the world that requires his attention."
In a stinging rebuke, Agnos declared that "this kind of leadership is unbecoming of the governor of California and clearly has placed him in an extremist position." He said that as Deukmejian "seeks his place in California history, this veto . . . will become the scourge of his political career."
Bruce Decker, an openly gay Republican named by Deukmejian to chair the state's AIDS Advisory Committee, said in a statement that he was "disappointed and saddened by the governor's veto of this important effort."
The bill, introduced last year after cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco led the nation in enacting their own anti-discrimination laws, defined acquired immune deficiency syndrome as a physical handicap and disability subject to discrimination provisions of the Fair Employment and Housing Act, as well as the state Civil Code.
Michael Frost, the governor's legislative secretary, said one of Deukmejian's major objections to the bill was that it singled out one disease--AIDS--as presumptive of a physical handicap without doing the same for many other disabilities and ailments that might equally invite discrimination.
The bill contained a less controversial provision sought by physicians and other health care professionals that would make it easier for medical personnel to order AIDS blood tests and obtain access to the results. Health care workers have complained that the law's strict confidentiality requirements now prevent them from receiving test results, sometimes hindering medical care.
The blood test provisions, however, also are contained in a bill by Sen. James Nielson (R-Rohnert Park) that is awaiting action in the Assembly. Deukmejian said he would sign that measure if it is sent to him separately.
In his veto message, Deukmejian characterized his commitment to AIDS research as "unshakeable," but added that "our compassion for the victims of AIDS should not cause us to make a significant change in existing law without a compelling need to do so."
Deukmejian said the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing already accepts and processes complaints of employment discrimination lodged by AIDS victims and those with other disabilities.
But the governor added that while "thousands of persons" are inflicted with AIDS "only 20 complaints alleging discrimination have been received by the department."
Thus, he continued, "the provisions of this bill dealing with discrimination are unnecessary. They establish an inappropriate precedent of placing a physical condition in statute that is better left to a more flexible administrative process."
20 Discrimination Cases
"No case was made as to why that should be done," Frost said. In the case of housing discrimination, Frost conceded that there is nothing in existing law to prevent landlords from discriminating against AIDS victims.
Of the 20 cases of alleged job discrimination filed by AIDS victims, 13 have been resolved to the satisfaction of the employer, the AIDS victim and the state, according to Frost. The seven remaining cases are pending.
The only contested case thus far involves a Santa Barbara man who died of an AIDS-related cancer in January, 1985. The man's family contends that he was unfairly denied reinstatement by his employer, Raytheon Co., a year before his death.
The state department agreed with the family and filed a civil complaint against Raytheon. The case is pending.
Criticized by Bradley
Mayor Tom Bradley, Deukmejian's Democratic gubernatorial opponent, said Deukmejian's veto "flies in the face of both medical evidence and human decency. To deny protection to those who suffer from the disease is heartless." The Agnos bill was endorsed not only by gay organizations, but by a large number of public health groups that favored changes in the confidentiality provisions and saw health peril in the potential for discrimination against AIDS victims.
But Barbara Alby, president of the Women's Lobby, a Sacramento group that opposes abortion legislation, applauded the governor for "weighing the merits of the Agnos bill against the greater concern for the public's health and welfare."
"Although it can't currently be proven that AIDS may be transmitted by casual contact," she said, "it's in the public's best interests that we treat AIDS as the serious communicable disease that it obviously is."
Ballot Faces Challenge
Deukmejian's budget for this fiscal year contains about $27 million to combat AIDS, about $8 million more than last year.
In another AIDS-related development, Secretary of State March Fong Eu announced that she will file suit in Superior Court challenging sections of a ballot argument submitted by supporters of the Lyndon LaRouche-backed initiative, Proposition 64, on the Nov. 4 ballot.
Eu said statements by proponents that "AIDS is not hard to get," and that transmission of the disease by insects and casual contact have been established, are "blatantly false."