In The News
Is Mills electable?
Candor could be gubernatorial candidate's undoing
The Native Conservative - George Smith - Kennebec Journal - August 17, 2005
It is not exactly the Ten Commandments, nor the 12 steps to sobriety, but the 12-step program toward more accountable government offered by gubernatorial candidate S. Peter Mills demands attention.
An independent thinker from a prominent political family, Mills has always delighted me with his wit, intellect, curiosity, and willingness to go where no one else dares to tread. He speaks the unspeakable and thinks the unthinkable.
Within his 12 steps are a sufficient number of stumbling blocks to throw any politician off course. His program is like a sand beach -- beautiful to view, but a real pain when one grain gets into your eye.
And there is more than one grain of pain in the Mills plan. In fact, I would be surprised if, after closely examining each of the 12 steps, there were not something to aggravate every Maine resident.
Can a politician be elected by being this bold and this specific?
I doubt it. But good for Mills for trying.
On the day of his announcement, Mills said: "The state is in a tailspin with a lot of problems. Who wants to preside over them?"
Well, he does, I guess.
Of his plan, he said: "I'm going to run on it. I'm going to get it done."
That will alarm a lot of people, starting with the business community. Step No. 8: "Cease granting arbitrary favors through the tax code to businesses that are here today and gone tomorrow."
Step No. 9 steps on a lot of toes: "Maine can no longer afford the luxury of duplicate services in such fields as police, fire protection and municipal administration."
Is Mills blissfully unaware that the fire department runs most rural Maine communities -- and firefighters do not consider their work to be duplicative of the work of the fire department 10 miles down the road?
Well, yes he is, so add courage to the attributes I listed above.
"We must win the turf battles necessary to consolidate some of these overlapping services," he said.
This would be the Super Bowl of turf battles.
Well, how about health care? Whom is this Republican from Cornville going after there?
He is going after a whole lot of people. He suggests new "taxes that discourage practices detrimental to public health." Do you smoke? Drink? Eat a lot of fatty food? Gov. Mills would make sure you pay for your unhealthy lifestyle.
Are you among the 25 percent of all Mainers now on Medicaid? Mills has news for you.
"So long as Medicaid is free, it will be exploited," he says in step No. 6, promising higher premiums and co-payments.
Of course, right there at the top, in step No. 1, Mills takes on the biggest bureaucracy of them all: human services, which he calls the "dominant business of state government." He demands "new systems of management with ... accountability for every bureau and performance-measured outcomes" and "more people with business training and acumen."
From there, he takes on the educational establishment, which he labels "the second biggest business of state government ... funding of K-12 education."
Although we have been testing students in fourth, eighth and 11th grades since 1984, "not one student has suffered a consequence for failing to perform," Mills said, "nor has any teacher yet been rewarded for superlative achievement."
"Without consequences, the system lacks meaning," he said.
And then he swings for the fences, saying, "Maine should extend the K-12 school year by a week and lengthen the school day to insert time for daily physical exercise, for supervised homework and for professional development among teachers."
The man has obviously been giving this a lot of thought. He says that small schools are essential, but "small districts are not," calling for consolidation of the 286 school districts into only 31, one for each labor market. It would make it easier to negotiate teacher contracts, he says, noting that "we have 211 teacher bargaining units and hundreds of others for support personnel."
"Consolidation is unpleasant but unavoidable in the face of escalating costs," Mills said.
He does not know the meaning of unpleasant, is my guess. But he might find out soon.
Probably the only step Mills proposes that might win universal acceptance, if not acclaim, is his call to send more issues out to public referendum -- including his own proposal to reduce income taxes by broadening the sales tax.
And his clarion call in Step No. 4 to "pay as you go or do without" will play well in the conservative-dominated Republican primary.
"Maine is teetering on the cliff of insolvency," Mills said. "The state's two largest debts are $3 billion owed to the pension system and $1.2 billion owed for unfunded retiree health benefits.
"Maine has no future without bringing these staggering burdens under control."
Which makes one wonder: Does a politician of such candor have any chance of getting elected governor?
George Smith of Mount Vernon is the executive director of the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.