In my last two years in the Senate, I used to take responsibility for everything the Republicans did wrong in California. It started when, in December, 2000, then President Pro Tem John Burton asked me to preside over the swearing in of the new Senate members that year. About a month later, the electricity crisis hit California in a big way, and Democrats in the Senate spent the whole time trying to blame Republicans for the collapse of the grid. Since they, at that time, controlled both houses of the Legislature and the Governor’s office, it was hard for me to figure out how we could have done anything to cause the problem. Then it hit me. I presided over the Senate for twenty minutes in December. Sure it was just the swearing in ceremony, but, if as the Democrats said, the electricity crisis was Republican’s fault, and I was the only Republican in any position (in that case, the presiding officer of the Senate for 20 minutes) to do anything, I must have done something then to screw up electricity in California. I apologized for my error, and assumed full responsibility for it from that point forward. It was a fun joke for a couple of years, and it drove home the point I wanted to make, and that was, that the electricity crisis was created by the Democrats, not us.
This time, however, it is no joke. I did make a mistake of monumental proportions, and it is important to explain it, and what happens so that Democrats in the Capitol don’t attempt to misstate what happened, and use my mistake to avoid their responsibility for the mess the state is in.
This state is experiencing a pension crisis. In the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, while Gray Davis was Governor, the state, and particularly the Legislature, was giving away the farm to the government employee unions. I was the Republican whip, and the Vice Chair of the Public Employee and Retirement Committee in the Senate. Dozens of bills passed the Legislature literally opening up the doors to the bank, and giving away taxpayer dollars to the unions. It was a truly shameful activity, a political payoff of the worst form. I spoke up against it, voted against a number of the bills, and persuaded my colleagues to do the same on a number of occasions.
But I missed one. SB 400 passed the Senate on September 10, 1999 with a unanimous Senate vote (with one abstention) 39-0. It was a big pension giveaway.
To understand what happened, I need to explain the Senate process. At that time, as the Republican whip, I was in charge of the Senate Republican analysis and floor operation (it has since changed). It was my job to flag potentially bad bills for my Senate Republican colleagues (and the Democrats if they wanted to listen), inform them of the problems, and let them make their decision about how to vote. If I saw no problem, I would allow the bill to pass through on a “unanimous roll call.” I would make the call about whether to allow a bill through with a unanimous Republican vote. If I didn’t flag it, my Republican colleagues would think there was no problem with the bill, and because I maintained a pretty tight screen, they trusted my judgment on that matter.
As it left the Senate, SB 400 was an innocuous bill that slightly increased the benefit to the widows and orphans of deceased state and school workers. It was a nothing bill that passed on consent. It was amended in the Assembly on September 10, 1999 to add a substantial increase in the benefits to the CHP (a 3% at 50 benefit) and to state workers (a 2.5% at age 55 benefit), exploding the state’s liability to CalPERS. It passed over to the Senate that same day. When it came back, somehow I missed the change. Looking back now 11 years ago, I don’t know how, but I did not flag that bill for my Republican colleagues. I allowed it to pass on a unanimous roll call. That was a huge mistake.
By way of explanation (and not excuse), the last days of session are always a little crazy. I had three staff people (compared to over 20 on the Democrat side) whose job it was to analyze the almost 2000 bills coming over from the Assembly in the last three days of session. September, 1999 was crazier than most, because the Dems were trying to satisfy all their constituencies who had 16 years of Republican Governor vetoes to make up for. We did our best to stop them. It was in that rush of garbage that SB 400 showed up, and got through my screen. It was a mistake a historical consequence.
But it must be made clear that it was my mistake. Any number of stories are going to come out here soon about how Republicans and Democrats joined together to create the pension mess, and they will use SB 400 as the example. That is because SB 400 is one of the few bills that passed with unanimous consent in the Senate. It shouldn’t have. It was my error that placed many of my Senate colleagues in the position of voting for a bill they would never have voted for had I done my job correctly. To them, I apologize. I cannot change what I did now, I can only accept full responsibility for a monumental error.
To the current Republican Legislators, don’t be deceived. Don’t allow my mistake to guide your effort. You are doing the right thing fighting to reform the pension system, whether through a defined contribution system, a “tier-two” pension system, or simply reducing the benefits, and fighting it in the courts. The system needs to be fixed badly.
I allowed one bad bill to get through. I made a huge mistake. That mistake should not be compounded now by allowing yourself to be cowed, because you are misled by the press and the Democrats that “Republicans help create this mess” by voting for SB 400. They didn’t. I did. And it was a mistake, a big mistake. Fix the problem I created, please