Maine State Senator Peter Mills

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Mills an 'odd stick'    --    Morning Sentinel    8-12-05

2005 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.

Sen. S. Peter Mills' entry in the gubernatorial race is worth some attention. He begins by presenting the voters with a 12-point plan containing more substance than we normally expect from candidates for public office.

My own less detailed plan for reform in Augusta envisions hordes of wild, cigarette-smoking Huns, billows of black smoke rising above the ruins of the administrative bunkers, the blood of bureaucrats flowing in the gutters and some humorous entertainments involving certain public officials, boiling oil, barbed wire and brine. Still, I recognize that this is just one man's beautiful dream. I suppose we must be practical.

The candidate's proposals include no reference to the social issues that concern conservatives and his legislative votes on these issues have earned him no favor in our ranks. It would be interesting to know the philosophical grounds for his votes, but the practical effects are unlikely to be significant. The occupant of the Blaine House might have some small power to hinder the conservative social agenda, but little power to advance it. Nor can we expect any viable Republican candidate in this state to pay more than muted lip service to the social issues.

Mills' voting record raises the question of whether he is a Reagan Republican, a Bush Republican or (to use an archaic phrase) a Rockefeller Republican. A conservative activist of my acquaintance describes him as an "odd stick." There is some merit to the label. He is, in fact, an S.P. Mills Republican. That is, he brings to politics a set of concerns, principles and scruples all his own. Some of these are familiar and widely shared among Republicans; some seem rather idiosyncratic. For example, he was the only Republican who voted against the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or TABOR, legislation when it was proposed in the Senate. Yet when Mary Adams, addressing a recent meeting in Belfast, pointed to a constitutional amendment as the ultimate goal of the TABOR movement, I heard him respond with a whoop of approval. His explanation for voting against the legislation was that it would be futile and too easily circumvented. This is surely true, although his nay could not affect the outcome either way and did him some political damage.

It may be that Mills is too logical to be practical, but that vote can only reinforce a well-deserved reputation for personal integrity. It is a mistake to conclude that he is inconsistent because he conforms to some Republican and conservative programs and principles while appearing lukewarm or indifferent on others. My impression -- and I cannot call it more than that -- is that he has been a consistent S.P. Mills Republican throughout his legislative career. I have seen a memorandum he wrote for the Republican caucus damning the all-too-slick government facilities authority bonds issued in 1998. It could not have been more rigorous and relentless. He played a prominent role in the people's veto campaign against this year's borrowing folly. His essay on taxes in the Changing Maine collection is the best thing in that memo.

It is pretty generally agreed that the candidate has achieved a mastery of the intricacies of state budgeting, finances and management that few in the Legislature can equal. The 12 proposals accompanying the announcement of his candidacy reflect this. Even if he fails to win the primary and the governorship, we must hope that the winner gives serious consideration to Mills' proposals.

Two examples show the senator's interest in basic managerial problems:
First, he points out that the generosity of the state's pension benefits coupled with their lack of transportability means that employees have a powerful motive for holding onto jobs that have ceased to satisfy or fulfill them.

Second, he criticizes the Department of Health and Human Services as virtually a sealed-off community.
These examples reveal Mills' expertise and interest in the mechanics of efficient government. They have an important characteristic in common with most of his other proposals. They are politically difficult but administratively simple, with potentially wide-ranging and beneficial effects.

Experience shows that administratively complex programs and reforms rarely work as intended. Conservatives should share Mills' interest in making the machinery of government work effectively, efficiently and economically, but they are right to expect a clear statement of the candidate's position on TABOR.

Governors come and go, but a constitutional amendment limiting the government's claims on people's income promises enduring reform.

John N. Frary writes from his Farmington home. He can be reached at