The state's often criticized political watchdog agency, the Fair Political Practices Commission, joined forces Wednesday with a crusading freshman legislator to propose a comprehensive package of ethics legislation.
The eight-bill ethics package, the most sweeping to be introduced in the aftermath of the FBI's investigation of Capitol corruption, would, among other things, ban the pervasive practice of legislators accepting expensive gifts and honorariums from special interests.
FPPC Chairman John Larson told reporters that he believes the Legislature is finally "in the position to act" on political reform. He contended that lawmakers are not inherently unethical but are bedeviled by a system in which there is "a lot of temptation" to do wrong.
"It's hard for people to turn down things that are offered," Larson said.
In addition to banning gifts and speech-making fees, the FPPC-backed bills would beef up financial disclosure requirements and lock the political "revolving door" that allows legislators and Administration officials to move between government and lobbying jobs. Top Administration officials and legislators could not lobby the Legislature for one year after leaving their offices.
The legislation also would close a loophole in the Political Reform Act of 1974 that prevents prosecution of elected state officeholders involved in conflicts of interest.
Two other bills included in the package but not yet endorsed by the FPPC would ban fund raising in non-election years and prohibit members of the State Board of Equalization from voting on tax cases involving campaign contributors.
Much of the FPPC's legislative agenda is being carried by Democratic Assemblyman Ted Lempert, 27, of San Mateo, who won his seat last November by running against the Sacramento "system"--even as his campaign was being partly underwritten by Assembly Democrats.
The fact that Larson and the FPPC would leave the fate of its ethics package to a first-term lawmaker with little clout underscores the difficulties faced by political reformers in the Capitol and the sensitive nature of the ethics debate itself.
Assembly Democratic leaders, particularly Speaker Willie Brown, want to give Lempert, who was the first Democrat in this century to be elected from his largely Republican district south of San Francisco, a chance to make good on his campaign promises to help reform the political process.
But the leadership has given Lempert no assurances that any of his bills will pass. Moreover, Brown and other legislative leaders from both parties have taken liberal advantage of large speaking fees, free trips and gifts that would be banned by the legislative package.
According to FPPC figures, the 120 members of the Legislature received nearly $3.2 million worth of gifts and honorariums in a three-year period ending in 1977. Speaker Brown alone collected more than $161,000 in gifts and speaking fees during 1987, including expense-paid trips to Austria, Great Britain, Ireland and Japan.
"I've let (the leadership) know what my proposals are but they haven't given me a firm commitment one way or the other," Lempert sheepishly told reporters. "There has been a lot of talk, a lot of people saying this is the time to get something through. Hopefully we will be able to surprise some people."
The FPPC's decision to adopt a high profile on the ethics issue follows a period in which it increasingly has been accused of dealing timidly with legislators. It also represents somewhat of a turnaround for Larson, who took office in 1986 convinced that the watchdog commission should spend more time educating politicians and less time investigating their activities.
On Wednesday, Larson said he thinks the system has gotten out of control. "Most people who make $50,000 or $60,000 a year don't expect others to give them $1,000 gifts or $1,000 speaking fees," he told reporters. "It appears to the public that (special interests) are getting something for their money."
A number of lawmakers have introduced their own ethics bills in hopes of softening the perception of wrongdoing triggered by the FBI's raid last August on the Capitol offices of four legislators and two aides.
None of these bills will be set for a vote until the Assembly's Committee on Ethics makes its own recommendations, which is not expected until shortly before the Legislature adjourns this fall.