California

Willie Brown On "Out of Control" Civil Servants

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Public sector pensions aren't the only things that are gonna be bulging!

Former San Francisco mayor and State Assembly speaker Willie Brown is becoming a high-profile champion of reforming California's public sector pension system. It's a strange but logical transformation for the staunchly utilitarian politician and practiced gladhander.

Jon Fleischman at Flash Report describes Brown's transition:

Earlier this year he wrote a widely-circulated column in the San Francisco Chronicle lamenting the "out of control" civil service: "The deal used to be that civil servants were paid less than private sector workers in exchange for an understanding that they had job security for life. But we politicians—pushed by our friends in labor—gradually expanded pay and benefits . . . while keeping the job protections and layering on incredibly generous retirement packages."

When I interviewed Mr. Brown in New York in March, he lamented that he hadn't anticipated the long-term implications of over-generous pensions: "When I was Speaker I was in charge of passing spending. When I became mayor I was in charge of paying for that spending. It was a wake-up call."

Governor Schwarzenegger wants the legislature to revoke certain pension reforms enacted in 1999, which made pensions much more generous. Mr. Brown may signal the emergence of other liberal allies calling reform, despite the opposition of powerful Democratic unions. The more that pension costs balloon, the less money is available for other programs—including many dear to the hearts of progressives.

As Brown himself suggests here, he doesn't exactly have clean hands when it comes to free spending. Back when he was in the Assembly, Brown used to make reporters swoon with his clever gambits to deliver costly new projects. (In particular, Los Tiempos de Nueva York loved to depict him as a puckish and wily master of parliamentary procedure.)

During his mayorship, however, Brown repeatedly let down his friends on the left with his more pragmatic leadership style. There were some big successes: I'd count the building of Giants stadium with no public money as one of the great feats of city leadership in the nineties. (And it was not at all done out of principle, as Brown proved later with an attempted stadium boondoggle for the 49ers.) Through all of that, Willie Brown has been fairly consistent: an extremely likeable political pragmatist with no particular attachment to principle or ideology. Which makes his new campaign worth listening to: It shows that facts on the ground are no longer possible to ignore.