The former California Speaker of the Assembly said term limits and impending pension debts are the biggest problems facing the state legislature.
Willie Brown, who served as speaker of the Assembly from 1980 to 1995, and then went on to serve as mayor of San Francisco for eight years, spoke at a Lincoln Club of San Diego meeting Friday and acknowledged the role his own Democratic Party played in awarding pension benefits the state can't afford. However, he said the Republicans' successful efforts to implement term limits in 1990 -- fueled in part by a desire to get him out of office -- have had disastrous effects.
"The state of California has never been more poorly run by a combination of the executive and legislative branch in the history of this state," he said.
Brown said the ultimate goal of politicians should not be only to get elected, but to serve the people and help solve problems once they're elected. He said an unintended consequence of term limits is that they create a "revolving door" of leadership that doesn't leave politicians very accountable.
"We have removed the requirement that you really want to serve as the leading component of why we elect you," he said. "We have allowed you to produce absolutely nothing, to be almost irresponsible in your whole conduct, and then we reward you by allowing you to do be elected again based upon the representations that you make."
In an interview after his speech, Brown said the groups who first imposed term limits would be necessary to overturn them, meaning namely, Republicans. Although representatives of the Lincoln Club said that despite being a Republican group, they did not support term limits in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
He said that while in office, despite being at philosophical odds with San Diego mayor-turned-Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, they were always able to work together through a system they established called "The Big Five."
The Big Five members were the governor, and then the two leaders of both parties in the two houses of the legislature. The Big Five let legislative committees do the majority of work on the budget, and only intervened at the end to figure out portions that the committees could not reach an agreement on.
"There were maybe four, five or six items that could not be resolved," he said. "The Big Five has now become not only the conference committee, not only does the Big Five solve problems, but the Big Five is going to write the budget.
"Having the Big Five trying to write the budget would be like having me run the war in Afghanistan," he continued. "It would be the stupidest thing you could have me do."
U.S. Rep. Darryl Issa (R-Vista) moderated the Friday event. He said that, as a Republican, even he has come to miss Brown's tenure in office in a way.
"Ultimately in government, it is better to have somebody in charge who keeps their promises that you then deal with, than to have no one in charge, no responsibility, and as a result, no promises kept," Issa said.
Brown said it's imperative that California gets back to working because it faces major problems, particularly public employee pension systems. Something that San Diego leaders know far too well, Brown said that pension rates as they are aren't sustainable.
He acknowledged that he and his own party share a lot of the blame.
"I once carried a bill to reduce the teachers' retirement age to 55," he said. "(It) should have been coupled with a method to which you finance that reduction. No, we didn't do that."
He said a lot of people had misplaced faith that revenues and the stock market would keep going up, and there would always be sufficient funds for benefits. Now, he said he watches in "horror" as there isn't money for many programs, and some cities are collapsing under the weight of their pension systems.
Brown also declined to endorse either candidate in the current governor's race, saying that neither Republican nominee Meg Whitman nor Democratic nominee Jerry Brown has offered concrete plans of what they'll do in office.
"There is no script (to being governor)," he said. "What I'm asking candidates to do is, come up with a script. Say where are you going to participate in the script. Say who the director is that's going to help you chart the other players in the script. And then tell us when the movie is going to be released, and then we will tell you how it will truly end."
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