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Lawmakers Advance Ethics-Pay Proposal

Times Staff Writer

A plan to let voters decide on new ethical standards for legislators--coupled with a possible salary increase--advanced Thursday in the Legislature, as lawmakers balked at imposing separate ethics restrictions on themselves without the prospect of a pay raise.

A proposed constitutional amendment that would ban honorariums for legislators and create a salary commission to set their pay was approved by the Assembly and Senate and sent to a two-house conference committee where final details of the proposal will be hashed out.

But a sweeping ethics bill--the centerpiece of a legislative package prepared by the Assembly Select Committee on Ethics--was shelved for the year by the Assembly Elections Committee after running into resistance from some Assembly Democrats.

Meanwhile, the Assembly passed and sent to Gov. George Deukmejian an unrelated bill that would raise legislators’ pay from $40,816 to $44,898 beginning in December, 1990. The increase is the maximum allowed under an existing constitutional provision.

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In the Assembly, the debate over lawmakers’ ethics was interrupted by the appearance of a rat--the four-legged kind--in the visitor’s gallery.

The large rodent, perched on scrollwork attached to one of the chamber’s ornate pillars, popped its head out several times and briefly brought the discussion to a halt as lawmakers craned their necks for a look. Assembly Speaker Willie Brown went up to the gallery for a closer inspection of the rat but joked afterward: “I watch them every day. Why would I have to look up there for one?”

Thursday’s actions on the various ethics proposals made it clear that the lawmakers’ strategy will be to link the question of “reform” with a possible pay raise and submit the whole matter to the voters.

If voters approve the ballot measure in June, 1990, a salary commission established by the constitutional amendment could award legislators a hefty salary--perhaps equal to the $84,765 received by Superior Court judges.

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But if voters reject the proposal because they do not like the potential pay raise, lawmakers could argue that the public does not want to improve the ethical standards of the Legislature with a ban on honorariums, restrictions on gifts and tougher conflict-of-interest laws.

The two-house conference committee is now scheduled to decide next week what elements of the ethics package it will link with the salary commission.

A comprehensive constitutional amendment proposed by Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles) would include limits on outside income, a ban on lobbying by legislators and top Administration officials for a year after they leave office, and a requirement that most legislative meetings take place in public. A similar constitutional amendment has been proposed by the Assembly Select Committee on Ethics.

The Assembly voted 57 to 9 to send its version to the conference committee. The Senate followed shortly after, voting 31 to 0 to send Roberti’s measure to conference.

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As lawmakers pushed the plan for a constitutional amendment, they also officially squelched a bill by the Assembly Select Committee on Ethics that would have enacted many of the tougher standards--including restrictions on gifts and honorariums--without offering legislators the possibility of a pay raise.

In an unusual maneuver, the Assembly Committee on Elections, Reapportionment and Constitutional Amendments suddenly convened Thursday morning, five hours before scheduled, and took up the bill without notice to members of the public and the press.

Later, after reporters questioned Committee Chairman Peter Chacon (D-San Diego) about the private nature of the hearing, he reconvened the committee, which then agreed for a second time to shelve the bill until 1990. The Legislature adjourns until next year on Sept. 15.

Even as the Legislature debates the ethics issue, some legislators have amended bills to create loopholes in the state’s campaign contribution laws.

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For example, the Senate has inserted amendments into a bill that would allow legislators to spend campaign funds on their legal defense in civil and criminal cases.

Sen. Barry Keene (D-Benicia), who sponsored the amendments, said his goal is to prevent a political candidate from tying up an opponent’s campaign funds by filing a frivolous lawsuit.

However, the amendment would have the effect of allowing legislators to accept contributions of unlimited size for their legal defense funds--even when they face prosecution on charges involving the acceptance of money from special-interest groups.

The bill could benefit at least three legislators who now face legal problems: Sen. Joseph B. Montoya (D-Whittier), who has been indicted on charges of extortion, racketeering and money-laundering; Assemblyman John R. Lewis (R-Orange), who has been indicted for forgery stemming from the mailing of campaign literature bearing the phony signature of then-President Ronald Reagan; and freshman Assemblyman Curt Pringle (R-Garden Grove) who has been accused in civil court of attempting to intimidate Latino voters in last November’s election by posting uniformed guards at polling places.

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