SACRAMENTO — John H. Larson, the new chairman of the state Fair Political Practices Commission, likes government and thinks that his job will let him "help change things for the better."
He says the FPPC, the state's political watchdog, is "No. 1 in importance among state agencies as far as public information goes."
Larson describes this informational role as "letting the public know impartially who is supporting whom in a political race, and with what assets, so that we might know if there was an effect on a vote."
Larson, 61, retired two years ago as Los Angeles County counsel. He took the new job early this year at the behest of Gov. George Deukmejian.
With his drill sergeant haircut, Larson initially evokes the notion of flint on steel. But as he peppered a recent interview with straight-faced jokes, embroidered with graphic body language, Larson soon warmed up to the image of a friendly innkeeper.
Larson's agency gets its information from the campaign finance reports required by Proposition 9 of 1974, which won approval of more than 70% of the voters. Every contributor of $100 or more, or recipient of an expenditure, must be identified and reported.
The 1974 law was approved in the wake of the Watergate scandals, as voters hoped to curtail political campaign abuses.
The files are available to anyone who wants to find out if a beneficiary of a politician's vote was a campaign contributor. Reporters use the files, and Larson said he is seeking ways to expand this use.
The FPPC also requires public officials to list their private economic interests, so that these also can be compared with their voting records. This goes for local governments too, but the latter do their own policing.
Lobbyists and their employers are also under disclosure requirements, and lobbyists are prohibited from making or arranging for gifts of more than $10 per month to any state official.
Lobbyists and officials have long protested the burden of providing such detailed reports, and Larson admitted that "it has gotten to the point where amateurs can't make it in politics. One person . . . said it used to be his wife who kept the books. That's impossible these days. They all need accountants."
But he wants to lighten the load by offering more advice and assistance. He wants to make it easier to comply with requirements, "so they won't feel threatened or intimidated. We want them to feel that we are helpful."
As for the quantities of campaign funds being thrown about these days, Larson noted that honorariums for speeches used to be $50 or $100, but are now $1,000 or $2,000. "If one person does it, then everyone has to do it. . . . There is a pecking order. Some get quite a bit and some just say no."
"Being a legislator is an honorable profession," Larson said, adding that raising their pay would remove temptation. "That's what we did with Los Angeles County. There was a (county) Charter amendment . . . to pay the supervisors the same as Superior Court judges," and to make them full-time jobs, eliminating side jobs such as working for a water district or a sewer district.
"I think it works. . . . It doesn't (make holding office) depend on inherited wealth or other jobs," he said.