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Johnson Pushes Capitol Reform Measures : Action by Assembly’s GOP Leader Timed to Monday’s Speaker Election

Times Staff Writer

Decrying legislative “back-room deals” and calling state politics a “cesspool of lies,” Assembly Minority Leader Ross Johnson on Thursday proposed a series of measures to “reform” political practices in both houses of the Legislature.

The Republican proposal, unveiled amid the specter of an ongoing FBI probe into Capitol corruption, would prohibit legislative staff members from working in partisan politics, cut the Legislature’s budget, curb the powers of the Assembly Speaker and remove from elective office candidates who lie in their campaigns.

“I’m proud to be a member of the California State Assembly,” Johnson of La Habra declared in announcing the legislative package. “But I believe the Legislature faces a crisis of confidence--a crisis of its own making. I think the Legislature needs to clean up its own act.”

Johnson’s announcement was timed partly to pressure lawmakers before Monday’s scheduled speakership vote. Johnson and all but two Assembly Republicans have vowed to oppose Democrat Willie Brown’s efforts to hold on to his powerful speakership post, blaming Brown for being the most formidable hurdle to legislative reform.

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Because Johnson’s package of reforms would amend the state Constitution, passage would require two-thirds votes of both houses. Then the voters would have to approve the constitutional amendment.

Johnson acknowledged that he had no specific commitments from the Senate and could count on support in the 80-member Assembly from only 30 Republicans and five dissident Democrats, who are also hoping to topple Brown.

Johnson’s more realistic expectation is to attempt to directly qualify his measure for the ballot, either in 1990 or in a special election next year. In fact, his proposal encompasses all the elements of a 1984 initiative he authored, Proposition 24, which was approved by voters but struck down by the courts because it conflicted with the state Constitution. Johnson’s latest proposal would get around the court ruling by amending the Constitution.

Johnson, who also authored Proposition 73, the successful June ballot initiative that limits campaign fund raising, said he will give official notice of his intention to circulate the new initiative Monday, the same day he introduces his proposal in the Assembly.

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But Johnson may have to stand in line. Leaders of nearly every Assembly faction are already pushing their own reform agendas. Brown has also said he will support changes in the way he runs the Assembly but is awaiting final recommendations from a committee he appointed headed by his close friend, Assemblyman John Burton (D-San Francisco).

The latest entry in the reform derby came Thursday when California Common Cause took the wraps off its own preliminary recommendations, which are far more sweeping than anything introduced by Johnson or the others.

Not only would the Common Cause proposal restrict political activities by legislative staff members, it would also require appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate corruption, close a loophole that exempts lawmakers from enforcement of conflict-of-interest laws, limit outside income of legislators and protect “whistle-blowers” who report on ethical violations.

Walter Zelman, Common Cause director, told reporters at a press conference that the FBI investigation--which has focused on five present and former members of the Legislature and several staff members--has brought confidence in California government to an all-time low. He added:

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“We believe the best thing elected state officials can do to begin to restore public confidence in the system is to enact a comprehensive ethics package that requires California public officials to perform their duties under the toughest and most comprehensive ethics laws that exist anywhere in the country.”

So far, the Common Cause proposal is only in outline form, but a final package is expected to be presented to the Legislature in January.

Johnson’s reform measure is far more limited, dealing mainly with legislative procedure and spending but not questions of conflicts of interest or lawmakers’ acceptance of gifts and speech-making fees from groups that have matters pending before them. Questioned about that, Johnson said his proposal was not meant as a “cure for everything from psoriasis to the common cold.”

One of the most significant parts of his package is its virtual ban on political activities by legislative employees. Those who leave state service would be barred from doing paid political work for one year and former employees who work as volunteers in partisan races would be barred from their legislative jobs for one year.

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On the issue of campaign mailers, the measure not only would remove from office candidates found to be lying but would subject them to civil suits if they use phony endorsements.

Assemblyman Pat Nolan (R-Glendale), Johnson’s predecessor, was recently implicated in a scheme to sign President Reagan’s name to a campaign letter. Johnson acknowledged that his measure would apply to such an instance and said, “Voters should not have to wade through a cesspool of lies.”

Even as he was speaking, however, Assemblyman Stan Statham (R-Oak Run) was accusing Johnson of violating the spirit, if the not letter, of his own proposal. Statham has been locked in a bitter battle with Johnson since the Republican leader sent mailers to his district trying to pressure him to oppose Brown in next week’s speakership vote.

Statham produced evidence that Johnson used his state-paid secretary to write a politically oriented letter concerning the speakership fight. The letter carried a disclaimer “not printed, handled or mailed at government expense.”

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Johnson did not dispute Statham’s claim but said he saw nothing wrong with his secretary typing the letter, even if the disclaimer was misleading. Later, Johnson said he had no intention of voluntarily following the tenets of his reform proposal unless it is first adopted by the Legislature or voters.

“I fully intend to play the game and operate within the exiting rules of the game until it is changed,” Johnson said.


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